The film is set in 1961 in Poland and tells the story of a Anna, a young would-be nun who is told that her aunt, after many years of silence, has asked to meet her. The girl is an orphan, we are told, but we know nothing about her past or circumstances that have brought her to be raised in the convent. She has never left since arriving as an infant. She doesn't want to leave to meet her aunt but the mother superior insists.
But sitting in the train station, the aunt's heart softens (we see an earlier shot of her in her capacity as a judge, mindlessly watching a trial that has to do with one neighbor cutting another's hedges and how this represents non-socialist behavior, etc.) and she and Ida return to her house. The stark shots, the austere background noises: all of that remains the same but the film warms up almost immediately and the two set out to find the bodies of Anna's parents (and Wanda's sister).
It's not useful to explain more of what happens because it gets at the heart of why the movie is so interesting but it involves a road trip and a young handsome saxophone player in a nightclub.
This leads me to one of the most interesting things about the movie: the music. Most of it is incidental (characters playing records or musicians playing on-stage in a bar) and there are only a few scenes with actual background music. Other than that, silence permeates this film. Not only silence from music but not as much dialogue as one might expect.
I kept thinking of Kieslowski while watching this. Not that Pawlikowski is a similar type of story-teller. In fact, they are radically different kinds of story tellers and the only thing that they have in common is their (often) bleak settings and the fact that they are both Polish. Kieslowski uses music in (at times) manipulative ways, appealing to our emotional lives less than to our intellectual ones.
But I appreciated Pawlikowski's vision a great deal. It's not a flashy film; it's very, very understated and he allows his viewers to be intelligent and sophisticated without handing them pat little morals or emotions on a platter. Because there are no answers: the past is our constant companion. Whereas Kieslowski was interested in the ways we find identity and then locate the bonds which connect us to one another, Pawlikowski is interested in how we live within the framework of the past, putting its painful episodes away or letting them overpower us.
Ida is playing at Cinema du Parc (with English subtitles) and at Excentris (with French subtitles) all week.