Set in Poland in 1962, Ida (directed by Pawel Pawlikowski) is the story of Anna, an 18-year-old orphan being raised in a convent about to become a young nun. Before she takes her vows, her mother superior urges her to contact her only known family, an aunt who she manages to track down and who tells Anna a secret about their family history. The reveal early on in the film is that Anna was actually born “Ida Lebenstein” to a Jewish family murdered during Nazi occupation when she was a baby. Learning this secret, Anna travels with her aunt in search of the burial place of her family, beginning a journey through a landscape shaped by the aftermath of war towards a quiet type of self-discovery.
Anna’s silence is a major theme in the movie, reflecting Anna’s solemn inner life and playing as a stark contrast to her aunt’s secular life as a judge and disillusioned communist darling with a weakness for alcohol and men. But it’s not only asceticism this quietness represents; there’s a blankness to Anna that is uncomfortable to watch and permeates almost all of her interactions through the course of the movie as we begin to realize she is another type of casualty of a war that left Poland and its citizens fractured.
We are never fully let into Anna’s inner world, and this is a tension carried throughout the film until it’s final scene. I found myself constantly asking “What is she thinking?” Anna never breaks down, never yells, never speaks her mind, never has a good cry, never has fun, and (beyond a single giggle) she never even laughs. Even when her aunt first tells her she was born Jewish, her reaction is a prolonged blank stare. She is cautiously curious to find out what happened to her family, and you can’t help but wonder if maybe she doesn’t want to know everything. She approaches the search for her family’s burial ground as a passenger, letting her interrogative aunt take control of the questioning, and we are reminded of a time in eastern Europe where silence reigned, where betrayal and unimaginable loss were commonplace, and where many turned their backs on confronting this horror.
It’s not that Anna doesn’t live; she makes bold decisions during the course of the film like wearing a dress and high heels, drinking, smoking, going dancing and dating a boy. We want her to enjoy herself, to find some type of fulfillment in satisfying her curiosity for a life outside of the convent, but we don’t get that. Anna experiences these things with the same sombreness that permeated her religious life. She tries a new life on for size, maybe the one she might have had under different circumstances, but she does these things like someone not fully present.
The film’s lack of emotional range from its leading actress is one of its most daring decisions and heightened by its formal choices: the stark black and white filming, the still camera, the long shots. The film’s framing also gives us an unsettling view of Anna often. She’s pressed to the edge, swallowed by her surroundings, or caught uneasily in the corner of the frame, like she doesn’t belong.
It was hard to leave the theatre feeling as though we’ve witnessed the decisions and life of a fully-developed person, which is where the impact of the film lies. As a Jewish orphan raised in an isolated convent, she is just one of the many fragments of the war, a person splintered from family, personal history, identity, and left to fend for herself in a country haunted by the atrocities of its recent past. She has lived much of her life unaware of the extent to which the war affected her personally, what it robbed from her, and it’s painful and confusing to witness someone having no way of coming to terms with this.
Ida is a determined, beautiful portrait of not only what’s lost because of war, but what never gets to be. It’s as much a story about Anna, the 18-year-old we have come to know through the course of the film, as it is about Ida, a figment of a life not lived.