Everyone is on a voyage of self-discovery in Ida — the two central characters certainly, but also Poland-born, Britain-based director Pawel Pawlikowski, making his first film in the homeland he left at 14.
The austerely luminous black-and-white drama is set in 1962, an era the director can't remember all that well. (He was 5 at the time.) The title character is 18 and about to learn who she is, or was. That requires a journey through a landscape of secrets, some hidden by the Communist government, and others held tightly by people who joined the Nazis in robbing and killing Jews.
A novice nun raised in a Catholic orphanage, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows. But first, the mother superior announces, Anna must visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).
Wanda is a revelation. She's hard-drinking and promiscuous — there's a man in her bed when Anna arrives — and still capable of the scouring fury she used as a prosecutor nicknamed "Red Wanda." She's also blunt. Wanda tells Anna that she didn't take care of her niece when she was a child because "I didn't want to."
One more thing: "You're a Jew. They never told you?" Anna was born Ida Lebenstein, and survived a bloodbath that claimed her parents and a young boy she sees in a photograph. That boy, as much as the woman who was Ida's mother and Wanda's sister, is the reason her aunt takes Anna/Ida to visit some places from their past.
Along the way, the two women pick up a hitchhiking saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) who loves Coltrane and soon develops a crush on the quietly radiant Anna. His sexy presence is not a quandary for the nun, who tells her aunt that she's had sinful thoughts but never carnal ones.
The relationship between Wanda and Anna parallels the one in Pawlikowski's best-known film, 2004's My Summer in Love, in which a rich teenage girl adopts and manipulates a naive working-class contemporary. But Wanda doesn't try especially hard to alter her niece's outlook, and it's not clear that she could.
Indeed, the two women's fates appear to have been written long ago, which is the movie's principal limitation. Both Wanda and Anna make changes — one permanent, the other temporary — that might be in response to what they learned on their trip together. Yet neither woman is essentially transformed, which makes the story, as scripted by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, feel a little aimless.
Shot by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida evokes 1962 with homely locations and a palette centered on gray middle tones. The images suggest 1920s silent films, although with a mastery of natural light that wasn't technically possible then. The aspect ratio is the boxy Academy format, long obsolete although used recently in such neo-retro productions as The Artist and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Also in the silent-film tradition is the ethereal performance by Trzebuchowska, who had never acted before. While Kulesza drives the story, the younger woman embodies it, like a sainted character from a drama by Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer. Whether she's Anna or Ida reflects a national trauma that seems not really part of her.