Absorbing, haunting, emotionally astute and impeccably crafted, Ida is the latest work from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose underappreciated My Summer of Love (2004) is one of my favorite films of the past decade.
My Summer of Love, which more or less introduced Emily Blunt to moviegoers, was about two young women engaged in a brief, dreamlike love affair in the Yorkshire countryside. Ida also depicts the brief relationship of two women, but to very different effect. (Two obvious differences: The new movie is in luminous black-and-white and in Polish, with English subtitles.)
With Ida, Pawlikowski returns to his home country to tell the story of a young novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in the 1960s who leaves the rural retreat of the convent where she was raised to visit her sophisticated aunt (Agata Kulesza).
The novice keeps her red hair — a genetic inheritance from her dead mother — hidden beneath her veil. Her only exposed cleavage is the impressive cleft of her chin. Her middle-aged aunt, meanwhile, is a self-described "slut" — a once feared Communist Party prosecutor who is now something of a worn-out party girl.
The orphaned novice, by order of her mother superior, is supposed to experience one last taste of civilian life before taking her vows. Instead the would-be bride of Christ and "faithful handmaiden against anti-socialism," as the aunt is described, begin to explore the nun's obscure family history, an investigation that takes them out of the city and into the tragic past.
In addition to being in black-and-white, Ida is presented in the so-called "Academy ratio," the squarish screen shape that was the norm until the late 1950s, when widescreen cinema became commonplace in America, to distinguish the movie-theater experience from the television in the living room. Composing for this squarish dimension, Pawlikowski and his expert cinematographers, Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, often leave a lot of room at the top of the frame, creating shots that suggest a careless cinema manager has neglected to crop the image for widescreen projection. The effect is intentional: The odd compositions imply the camera is respectfully aware of the presence of something hovering above the characters, something invisible and mysterious that perhaps affirms the validity of the nun's faith, even in this awful world of Nazi murders and Communist purges.