Anna is a novice in a Catholic monastery in the Poland of the 1960s. Before taking her vows, she is requested by her Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, Aunt Wanda, a socialite and former member of the Communist intelligentsia. In what seems like a journey of initiation, Anna’s travels outside the confines of the monastery are paralleled by a journey back in time, which discloses traumatic events of the past. The cynical Aunt Wanda reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida and that her parents and cousin had been killed during the war because, just like her, they were Jewish. The relationship between the two women with opposing life views, and their quest to find the killers of the Lebensteins advances the plot masterfully, while leaving room for small talk, car drives, long glances and moments of music or of silence which build up the tension between the two.

Wanda, a former state judge, leads what would seem to a nun a promiscuous life, and she tries to pull the young girl into her world, challenging her beliefs, mocking her pious demeanour. Moving from one place to another in search of the people who last saw and ultimately killed the Lebensteins, the two women negotiate the physical and emotional distance between them as well. They stop in remote villages, in hotels and restaurants with jazz music and bored locals, and they cannot escape each other’s presence just as they cannot escape themselves. To some extent, one might say that each of the women is the other’s alter ego.

The film impresses with its visual poetry, with its austere long–lasting shots, beautifully composed in black and white. The camera movement is minimalistic to such an extent that the characters seem to come in and out of those finely staged landscapes, often dwarfed by immense grey skies looming above. Most of the scenes have the quality of photographs and they partake in the modernist aesthetic through their framing and careful composition. Throughout the film, these scenes reminded me of the photography of Josef Koudelka whose work, in the 60s and 70s, portrays a Europe of desolated landscapes, of solitary figures, of contorted bodies and elusive relationships.

Poland after the Second World War is not a space lightly described with cinematography either. It appears that Pawlikowski’s often contrived frames are yet another symptom of an acute sense of controlling the environment, of keeping things up and going within a crumbling political regime. However, most of the sound in the film is from the set, making it seem loose, unplanned, and acting contrapuntally to this imagery. It is not by chance that jazz features in this film, challenging with its rhythm and harmonies a rigid, bitonal image, and giving a glimpse of something foreign, something from the “land of freedom”.

Without seeking to give an answer as to which life choices are better, which attitude when confronted with death and grief is commendable, Ida opens questions about how to deal with facets of one’s identity, and choices which previously seemed set in stone and secure. Both women die in their own particular way: the former judge chooses death in a physical concrete way, the other through the ascetic way of denying the world outside of the monastery, killing one’s own will. But whereas Wanda is overcome by guilt and the crumbling of her authority, the novice, who seems less experienced in matters of life, has a more intuitive understanding of the subtleties of consciousness. In a very theatrical way, Ida impersonates Wanda and lives like her for a night, against her religious beliefs, or testing them, pushing them further. It is ambiguous whether Ida confronts her beliefs out of a sheer curiosity and impulse or out of a rational trade with oneself, but she does it lightheartedly, as if to say “I am human, I accept contradictions in my life.” This possibly allows her to hold those contradictory identities, and yet to finally make a choice.

In a Post-War Europe in which everything is destabilized, this film also posits a larger existentialist question about the vulnerability of the human condition, shifting from the particular and historical to the universal. What the film seems to say is that neither a top end position as a judge and membership of the Communist Party, nor the devotion of one’s life to something which transcends the mundane offer a sense of security or of redemption when it comes to doubting oneself. Despite its visual setup, the film affirms that often in history and in one’s personal life things are not black and white and that it is fine to doubt and to question one’s choices, and that it is most certainly human.

If you would like to follow a remarkable story of loss and identity, and also to be immersed in a world of outstanding cinematography and visual composition, watch Ida.