Many shots in the strikingly-photographed film Ida feature people arranged along the bottom of the frame, with ample empty space left above their heads. That space could hold many things—thought bubbles, slogans—but in this case, it seems to hold whatever weighs on the character's mind, controlling their thoughts and actions: some kind of invisible authority, a heavy, unseen power.
For Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novitiate about to take her vows, this space holds only thoughts of the divine. Raised in the convent, Anna lives in a daily routine of devotion, prayer, and service. It's 1961 and Poland is under Communist rule, but for all of Anna's experience, it could be the Middle Ages.
The Mother Superior tells her she must visit her only living relative before she takes her vows—an aunt whom the sisters had contacted repeatedly after Anna came to them as a tiny child, but who refused to take her in. Anna begrudgingly but dutifully goes, only to discover that her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is a hard-drinking, hard-partying, sardonic Communist Party insider, a judge who is not terribly happy to meet her niece. Wanda also has news for her: she's Jewish, actually—a Jewish nun. "They never told you?" she asks. Her name, in fact, is Ida Lebenstein, and her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Wanda and Anna—or Ida, now—set out on a road trip to find her parents' graves. Along the way they pick up a young man (Dawid Ogrodnik), a saxophonist, who invites them to come to a gig he's playing that evening. Ida has clearly not experienced this world before. It's not a world weighed down by religious obligation. Rather, it's a country bowed under the weight of its recent tragic history, the memory of people murdered and buried and much more.
This also is what pressed down on Wanda, who cannot seem to cope with existence at all, always looking to escape into a shot glass or a man's arms. Ida watches Wanda with something like wonder. But as they get to know one another, they discover more about one another's secrets. And that sets them both down the path toward their destinies, waking them up from numbness.
Each frame in Ida is like a Dutch painting, or even a Renaissance painting, Agata Trzebuchowska's face as serene as a Madonna. Trzebuchowska is certainly the film's other great asset: all the performances are great, but she is not even an actress, having been spotted by a producer in a cafe and hired almost on the spot. You'd never believe it. Her eyes are like deep, dark midnight pools, imbuing what could have been a rather flatly written character with the sense that much lays beneath the still surface (which helps keep the third act convincing).
Ida calls to mind quite a range of films. It has kin in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, also a black-and-white film about a trip to find family origins. Serene images of nuns and novitiates singing in the chapel and eating quietly together recall Philip Groning's Into Great Silence. Some of the long driving shots punctuated by conversation made me think of various films by the Dardennes.