Every still from this Polish black-and-white movie deserves to be put in a frame and hung on the wall – filmed with a photographer’s eye for composition and juxtapositions of light and dark, it’s one of the most striking films I’ve seen. It’s perhaps too restrained and minimalist for me to find it truly affecting, despite its emotional revelations, but the photography and the two compelling central performances make it a worthwhile watching.
Anna is a young convent-raised girl in 1960s Poland who is one week away from taking the vows and becoming a nun, when she’s instructed by the Mother Superior to visit her only remaining relative, her aunt Wanda, before she commits to the life of chastity, poverty and obedience. Wanda turns out to be a judge for the Communist Party who, despite her stern occupation, is into drinking, smoking and one-night stands and who at first is not too happy to see her niece. She also drops a bombshell on Anna – despite being a devout Christian all her life, Anna is actually Jewish, her real name is Ida, and her parents were killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Eventually Wanda warms to Anna and together they travel to Anna’s birthplace to discover how her parents died and why she was spared. Wanda also thinks that Anna should try some secular fun and carnal pleasures before she exits the outside world forever.
Their journey is about uncovering harrowing personal and national secrets, but it’s not all misery and tragedy; in some ways this is a classic odd-couple road movie, with the serious and devout Anna standing in stark contrast to her jaded aunt. With her history of sentencing people to death and a deep sense of guilt that she tries to dull with her hard-partying ways, Wanda could have been a subject of her own movie. Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Anna/Ida, has one of those faces you could get lost in, with a dimple in her chin and huge black pools for the eyes. Anna is still, quiet and opaque, absorbing the new shocks and discoveries in a stoic manner that could have come off as blank if not for the impression that there’s always something going on behind the impassive exterior.
As mentioned before, this movie is packed with stunning black-and-white photography. Many shots feature characters dwarfed against the buildings and backdrops, or arranged along the bottom third of the frame, a technique that to me felt both jarring and effective. I’m not sure what the intent of these compositions was, but to me they suggested characters being helpless against some huge invisible power that controls their lives – history? Fate? Who knows. The presence of music is minimal and many scenes play out without dialogue, simply through the visuals. I admit, this artistic, understated, extremely deliberate approach drained the film of some of its emotion, but I also have to admire its resistance to milk the potentially melodramatic scenarios in an obvious manner. Like its heroine, Ida is distant and a tad chilly, but always fascinating to watch.