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Small-scale ‘Ida’ makes a larger emotional effect

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.
    Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in “Ida.”
    A nun in training (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns about the world from the aunt she never knew she had.

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    A woman who’s about to become a nun in 1960s Poland gets dramatic news from the aunt she never knew.

    B STARS: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska.

    DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski.

    RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes.

    RATING: PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking).

It would be hard to find a feature-length movie smaller, quieter, shorter or subtler than “Ida.” But I defy you to shake it off soon afterward.

The title character is named Anna when we meet her, on the eve of taking vows at a convent in the early 1960s. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, in her film debut) has been raised in its orphanage and wants to become a nun. The mother superior insists she first visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has never visited her.

Wanda has startling news: Anna’s real name is Ida, her parents were Jews slain during World War II – probably by Poles who wanted to steal their house and/or curry favor with Nazi occupiers – and no one knows where they’re buried.

The two women set out in a car to trace family history. Anna never asks a question, begins a conversation or even changes clothes: She has settled self-identity questions long ago, and even the idea that she comes from murdered Jews doesn’t faze her. Her aunt drinks hard, sleeps with strangers and seems to feel guilt at having survived and adapted to postwar Polish society, however awkwardly.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski, who wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, makes most of his points visually: Characters speak briefly, softly and elliptically. The black-and-white photography underlines the bleakness of Polish society at the time, whether in the barren countryside or the unappealing city. The most shocking incident arises suddenly (though it makes sense psychologically) and is over almost before we realize what has happened.

Trzebuchowska projects little more than passivity. Even when she tries out aspects of her aunt’s urban life, she seems only mildly curious about the world beyond the convent. Thinking too deeply has made her aunt unhappy; Anna/Ida prefers to have her thinking done for her by the church, whose protective arms have always enfolded her. We’re never sure whether her response to her parents’ betrayers is indifference or forgiveness.

The movie’s not anticlerical, though it may be antisocialist. Anna’s simple daily activities seem to suit her, and Wanda (who has become a judge of unimportant court cases) derives no happiness from her more complicated routine.

The freest person in the picture is a jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who finds satisfaction playing John Coltrane’s music. Are the filmmakers saying art is the only wholesome outlet in a society that dictates how we should think and behave?

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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