Gravely beautiful, ‘Ida’ shines light on Polish guilt in war

Agata Kulesza (left) and Agata Trzebuchowska star in ‘Ida,’ which opens in St. Louis this week. Photo courtesy Music Box Films

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Acclaimed Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native country to take it to task over its treatment of its Jewish citizens during World War II, in this beautifully-photographed, searing drama about two women in 1960s communist Poland. Shot in black and white, “Ida” skillfully and subtly uses the story of a Jewish aunt and niece to explore both the wartime treatment of Jewish Poles by their non-Jewish neighbors, lingering anti-Semitism and the Communist government’s role in erasing the past.

Raised in the convent where she was left as a small child, 18-year-old Anna (gifted newcomer Agata Trzebu-chowska) is about to take her vows to become a Catholic nun when the head of the convent reveals a secret to her — that she has one living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza). The young novice nun is told she must meet with her sole relative before she can take her final vows.

The naive Anna could not be more different from her aunt Wanda, a worldly, bitter woman who was once a power in Poland’s Communist government. Once, Wanda led tribunals against war criminals but now she is a low-level judge and in disgrace. Hard-drinking and cynical, she greets her niece, the daughter of her younger sister, with coolness. When she off-handedly mentions that they are Jewish, the young novice nun is stunned. But the aunt is equally shocked that she did not know, since the convent nuns have known all along. Indignant, Wanda tells her niece that her real name is Ida and that her parents were killed during the Nazi occupation. She then decides they will uncover what happened to Ida/Anna’s dead parents by setting out on a road trip to the family farm in a remote rural area. 

What they uncover in this dramatic road trip is chilling, and the failure of the nuns to tell Ida about her heritage is only the beginning of a trail of deceit and betrayals. 

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“Ida” looks like it might be a film about a young woman discovering her hidden Jewish identity but director Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the script, subtly and brilliantly uses her story to reveal unsettling aspects of Poland’s own identity, specifically its mistreatment of Jews during the war and postwar anti-Semitism. While the film is presented from the point of view of the young Anna/Ida, in many ways, the story really belongs to Wanda, who has endured so much of this directly. Young Ida/Anna projects a stillness throughout her discoveries, and only reveals her inner feelings in the subtlest of ways. By contrast, the emotionally expressive, cynical Wanda, played brilliantly by Kulesza, is a woman who has been ravaged by the loss of her family and her disappointment with post-war communist Poland. 

The road trip becomes a trip back in time as well as a mystery, peeling back layers to expose Polish attitudes towards their one-time Jewish neighbors. Some Poles collaborated with the Nazis, while others helped hide Jewish families, but who helped and harmed was blurred by war. As Wanda quizzes the locals about what happened to the Jewish family who once lived among them, there is an undercurrent of hostility towards the aunt, and the evasiveness and disrespect shown her contrasts starkly with the reverence given her niece, who continues to dress in her nun’s attire. It is a powerful and damning illustration of lingering anti-Semitism and unacknowledged guilt. 

But this nuanced film uncovers its truths in indirect ways, using powerful dramatic acting and the heartbreaking details of this family’s story. Despite Ida/Anna’s quiet cooperative manner, what they discover and what they do has a profound impact on her, as the film later reveals. 

“Ida” is a small but brilliant gem, with an austere visual beauty, powerful acting and a sharp social commentary under its moving story.