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 ...

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Ida
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May 2014

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