Around 3 million Polish Jews — about 90 percent of the population — were killed by the Nazis. A few thousand gentiles sought to save the rest. The new Polish film Ida considers this time from the vantage point of 1962, rendered compellingly in black-and-white.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s heroine is a young novitiate named Anna (played canvas-like by Agata Trzebuchowska), raised in a Lodz convent, who before taking her vows learns a secret: Her birth name is Ida Lebenstein, and her parents were murdered Jews.
She learns this through her long-unknown-to-her Jewish aunt Wanda (sharp and weary Agata Kulesza), a judge formerly feted for delivering harsh penalties to state enemies during the Stalinist era and now smoking, drinking, and sleeping around bitterly while a more liberal form of communism arises.
Wanda dislikes what she considers to be her niece’s flat purity, but loves the girl for looking just like her sister. Ida unfolds partly as chamber play and partly as road movie, following the two women on a search for their dead beloveds’ anonymous graves.
On the journey they look both backward and forward: They visit the farmer family that hid Ida’s parents and might have killed them, as well as nighttime concerts offering promise of Poland’s future democracy through gorgeous notes of American jazz.
Ida and Wanda, initially oppositional, come to open up to one another. “Of course, I’m a slut and you’re a little saint,” Wanda tells the younger woman at one point. “This Jesus of yours adored people like me.”