Review by Jane Freebury

This solemn, spare and beautiful personal journey begins in a house of silence, a convent, where a young woman is preparing herself for the vows that will commit her to a life of chastity and prayer. She is obliged to make a visit to family before she makes the irrevocable life choice. Family, it transpires, is an aunt, the only living relative, who discloses to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) that her real name is Ida and that she is in fact Jewish.

The impact of the revelation is consigned to the place where Ida has learnt to contain her feelings. It is not hard to imagine that this is the way she has learned to cope, when all she has ever known in life is the convent where she was left as an orphan at the end of WWII. For all the emotional churn going on beneath its surface, Pawel Pawlikowski’s entire film is a model of restraint, told in exquisitely composed black-and-white images inside a 4:3 frame, like old ‘Box Brownie’ family photos from the 1950s. The camera barely seems to move. An austere, locked-down approach that could work against the flow of a journey that takes place largely on the road, but it doesn’t.

With her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) behind the wheel, Ida travels to the farm that was once her family home. She encounters the father and son, now its owners, who know about the fate of her parents. Wanda, a judge, has just the right skills for getting at the truth, however her interrogations also reveal that she nurses a terrible secret of her own. It provides additional backstory to the road trip, which is quite possibly as important for her as it is for her young niece.
Set early in the 1960s, the world of the film looks to both the past and to the future. The scars of war remain but western jazz is seeping through the cracks of the communist Poland and getting picked up by youth culture.

While it is Ida whose composed and lovely features, complete with dimple on the chin, whose face the camera studies, it is Wanda who takes the hit, on a journey of her own. A firebrand of the new regime in her youth, ‘Red Wanda’ on the bench from which she dispensed a fiery justice to regime recalcitrants, she drowns her emotions in cigarettes, booze and men. Not necessarily the best alternative role model for a young novitiate.

Along the way, Wanda stops to pick up a handsome young hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a saxophonist in a jazz group. Now he does offer an attractive alternative. Or does he. The final frames are, one would hope, left open, but a cryptic and unsettling ambiguity remains.

In a capsule: In exquisitely composed B&W, this is the solemn and thoughtful personal journey of a young novitiate about to enter a convent in post-war Poland.

4 stars