'Ida': A Coming-Of-Age Story With An Eerie Luster

Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski's new film centers on an orphan who learns the secret of her past when she's on the brink of becoming a nun.

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The Polish-born director Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski's is best known for the English-language movie "My Summer of Love," a lesbian coming-of-age film that was a breakthrough for actress Emily Blunt. His new film is called "Ida," spelled I-D-A and centers on an orphan who learns the secret of her past when she's on the brink of becoming a nun. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: To call "Ida" a female coming-of-age movie doesn't begin to capture its eerie luster, its stark black and white palette, its boxy, static frames. The movie begins in a convent where a girl called Anna will soon take her vows. The religious imagery in the first silent minutes makes you think you're going to see a more hushed, reverent kind of film than what follows.

The iconography recalls the Danish expressionist director Carl Dreyer as well as early Ingmar Bergman. As Anna, Agata Trzebuchowska resembles the young Mia Farrow - her wide apart eyes seem fixed on some otherworldly realm. Anna was raised in the convent's orphanage but now, says the Mother Superior, it's time for her to meet her only relative, an aunt named Wanda by played by Agata Kulesza.

Anna treks to her aunt's apartment. She learns her given name was Ida and she learns that she's Jewish. Anna, I mean Ida, doesn't say oy vey. She doesn't say much of anything. She continues to stare beatifically offscreen, leaving her aunt to do all the emoting. Think of Wanda as Auntie Mame as a bitter lush. She's a judge but was not so very long ago a widely feared party prosecutor.

She sent enemies of the socialist state to their deaths. She was known as Red Wanda. What caused her fall isn't clear - maybe alcohol, maybe Jewishness, maybe that she's a woman. Ida offers a last chance for Wanda to grapple with her past. So the two women embark on a journey to find out what happened to and what remains of their family.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland at age 14. This is his first film in his native language. He's a quarter Jewish - his grandfather died in a concentration camp - but "Ida" isn't about rediscovering his Jewish heritage. Its theme is more general - confronting a past that's buried and festering.

The style conveys much. Until the last minute of the film, the camera is fixed in place, each image invoking the desolation and sense of imprisonment of Poland in the early 1960s. The characters' heads are always low in the frame. Their lack of power is almost tactile. It's obvious Pawlikowski harbors no love for Poland's people, whom he shows to be willfully indifferent to the fates of the millions who died during the war.

At first, no one will admit to remembering Ida and Wanda's family but the women turn out to have some power. Ida's religious habit earns her respect and Wanda can threaten people with the might of the totalitarian state. At the halfway point Wanda and Ida pick up a male hitchhiker, a very cute alto sax player in a traveling jazz band. Ida feels the pull of the secular world. It's clear the musician kindles something in her she's never felt before.

There's considerable suspense. Will she go back and take her vows despite everything she knows? In festivals across the U.S. and the world, the movie has received some rapturous reviews. I'm not convinced there's enough here for a masterpiece. Up to the credits it's a mere 78 minutes and the style that's so arresting can also seem studied.

But "Ida" is a frightening portrait of repression, of what happens to a society that buries its past in an unmarked grave and lives its present in a state of corrosive denial.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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