Beautiful and brooding, Paweł Pawlikowski's 2013 film Ida is - to quote the director himself - “a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music” in early '60s Poland, a time when the nation still bore the scars not only of war but of the Stalinist regime.
Screen newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska (spotted in a cafe by a friend of Pawlikowski, who was struck by her blank yet deeply, subtly expressive features) stars as the 18-year-old Anna aka Ida, an orphan and novice nun who is sent by her mother superior to spend time with her only living relative, her estranged aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), before taking her holy vows.
Wanda, an abrasive alcoholic state prosecutor (based on real-life Jewish WWII survivor and Polish resistance fighter Helena Wolińska-Brus who subsequently became a prosecutor in the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s), takes it upon herself to educate her niece on her real family - revealing that she is in fact Jewish and that her parents were slain during the war by the very people who were hiding them from the Nazis. As these long buried truths come to the surface, Anna/Ida finds herself reevaluating her life and all that she has ever known.
Even if you have only seen one Pawlikowski film, it ought to go without saying that he is a truly fabulous filmmaker. Ida may not be my favourite work of his (that's probably still Last Resort) but my word, it is a stunning, technical accomplishment and a deeply emotive, affecting movie. The monochrome cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal affords the action both a tremendous clarity and an excellent evocation of the period the film is set in (indeed, when Dawid Ogrodnik's jazz band turn up, catching the eye of Anna, I half expected to see Tadeusz Lomnicki and Roman Polanski in the line-up from their roles in Andrzej Wajda's 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers), but what really makes Ida stand out is Pawlikowski's decision to frame his shots in the 4x3 style, thereby placing his characters at the bottom or on the edge of the screen, the camera pointing above their heads almost as if it is asking you to spot their halos.
It is only when Anna/Ida - armed with the knowledge of where she came from and who she is; a metaphor for Poland itself as it attempts to come out from under the shadow of both the Nazis and the Soviets - begins to plot her own course that he allows her to properly dominate the frame.