From Schindler’s List to Life Is Beautiful, a wide range of movies have examined aspects of the Holocaust, but few films explore the ripple effect of one of history’s darkest moments. That’s the void Polish writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski tries to fill with Ida.
Set in 1961, Ida (rated PG-13 for thematic elements and discreet nudity) tells the story of a young woman who is on the verge of taking her vows as a Catholic nun. Although Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) grew up at the convent where she lives, the mother superior requires her to go meet her last surviving relative before committing to a lifetime of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the church. Anna soon learns from her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), that she was born as a Jewish girl named Ida. Her family died in the Holocaust. The stunning news leads Anna to question who she is and what she wants in life as she embarks on a mission with her aunt to find where her parents are buried.
Pawlikowski draws in viewers with a compelling narrative, superb acting, and mesmerizing cinematography—even though he uses no camera movement until the movie’s final scene. Quiet Polish dialogue (with English subtitles) and an unpredictable storyline keep the audience engaged throughout the 80-minute movie.
Pawlikowski eschews lighthearted moments—there’s hardly a smile in the movie—and delves deep into difficult subjects, including the meaning of life, death, the significance of family history, and the realities of post-war communism. The choice to shoot in black and white makes an already gloomy film even darker.
Pawlikowski succeeds in making a film that resonates with the audience, but he fails to include the most important part of a story: redemption. Anna is presented with only the false choice of life in a convent or the life of drunken revelry exemplified in her aunt. The result is a story that illustrates the hopelessness of life without Christ—whether it takes the form of embracing the world or shunning it.