Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, in IDA. Courtesy of Music box Films
Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, in IDA. Courtesy of Music box Films

Agata Trzebuchowska, the actress making her debut as the title character of “Ida,” has dark eyes that burn like coal when shot in black and white. Playing a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, she doesn’t speak much at all, the camera is always gazing into her eyes and as we watch and keep watching, there’s a lot going on behind them.

However, her character is going to be tested in this quiet but wrenching little tale from director Pawel Pawlikowski, best known for 2000’s “The Last Resort.” She receives a letter from an aunt and travels out into the great big world to find her. When she does, they are quite opposite: Wanda (Agata Kulesza) smokes, boozes it up, and sleeps around. But we also learn that she used to be a detective for the state, hunting down “anti-socialists” and she has called Anna from the convent to tell her a few shocking things: her name is actually Ida, and she was actually born a Jew. And the reason she’s brought her out is to join her in hunting down the Nazi sympathizers who murdered Ida’s parents back in World War II.

That’s really all one needs to know about the plot. It is not a very convoluted plot and their mystery is not hard to solve. It’s just that nobody’s asked to solve it before.

Instead, “Ida,” shot in austere and beautiful black and white on some form of digital HD video, is about a certain time and place in communist Poland, the legacy of the Holocaust, and what place faith has in any of this, especially after the theological shake-up Ida suffers. (Not to mention what happens when a novitiate nun visits the big city and sees men for the first time.)

Mr. Pawlikowski places his characters right at the bottom of the frame, leaving plenty of air space above their heads. Is this God above them? Is it a vacuum? The weight of history and secrets? The meaning of all this space shifts and changes over the course of the film, but one gets so used to this composition that when the director finally shoots his characters in full figure, it pops out as bold and dramatic.

Ms. Trzebuchowska and Ms. Kulesza make an interesting team. As mentioned, the younger actress does a lot of her acting with her eyes, as even her body is restrained behind her grey habit. And though Wanda is more a woman of the world, her steely eyed gaze locked at a distance while she smokes a cigarette tells us everything about this woman’s past life working for the state, and the emptiness on her plate now.

The structure of the film allows for us to follow the two after they have solved the “case” and gone back to their lives, unlike most pedestrian films where the solution would end the film. Instead, their new knowledge changes them and makes them re-evaluate everything, leading to some tragic decisions.

“Ida” is gloomy, but by being so it allows for some rays of light. One of them is the sound of John Coltrane’s “Naima,” as covered by a young jazz combo in a club they visit. Hearing these romantic and mystical sounds against the backdrop of grim post-war chaos is one of the film’s most sublime moments. But there are many more.

Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza and Dawid Ogrodnik
Length: 88 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking

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