Ida tells a novice nun's enigmatic tale

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Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska. In Polish with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

A novice nun called Anna (ethereally pretty newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows, and her isolated convent seems lifted from the 18th century. But her real name is Ida and, as we gradually learn, this is mid ’60s Poland. Her aunt Wanda (Polish-TV veteran Agata Kulesza) has news for her. The chain-smoking, hard-drinking woman is a judge and one-time partisan, a former bigwig in the Communist party. Near the end of the Second World War, the infant Ida was left with a Catholic priest, and the rest of their Jewish family perished.

Most of the 80-minute tale consists of their winter journey to find out what happened, with additional trouble caused by the volatile “Red Wanda”. Ida also meets a young saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) who reminds her of the wider world. Both women have red hair, but this we must be told, because the movie is shot in infinitely shaded black-and-white, and it’s in the old-school, nearly square format used in films from that period.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski, who wrote the terse script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, was born in Poland but this is his first movie set there, and he’s clearly invoking the enigmatic Czech and Polish films of the ’60s. The U.K.–based director is best known for My Summer of Love, Emily Blunt’s breakthrough of 10 years ago, and the more recent The Woman in the Fifth, which were also haunted by secrets and ghosts.

Pawlikowski favours extreme compositions, with characters pushed—by fate, history, or circumstance—almost out of the frame. Of course, the cinema being emulated was cryptic because it had to be, due to censorship and constantly shifting political tides. Here, the story comes off as overly mannered and doggedly predetermined, from the Christ imagery at the start to the repeated use of John Coltrane’s “Naima” on the soundtrack. The stunning visuals, however, are not to be missed.

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