This review contains spoilers.
An emotionally devastating film set in the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, this intimate movie directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is about Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young Catholic novice who, right before she is to take her vows, learns that she is actually a Jew who was left at the doors of a convent after her parents were murdered during the war.Ida learns the truth from her aunt and sole surviving relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard charging judge in the communist regime, who harbors an unspeakable loss. A die-hard atheist and drinker who barrels through life with seismic amounts of anger, she rolls her eyes at Ida's Catholic devotion, but Ida is as innocent of the world as her aunt is cynical and worldly. Reminded that this girl is her sole remaining relative, Wanda takes her on a road trip to find the little that is left of her roots.
The movie quietly points its finger at a society that behaved, in most cases, execrably (with generous help from the Catholic Church) towards Polish Jews, during and after the war. But although it is shot in beautiful, expressive black and white, in the square format of the movies of the time, things are not so black and white in this story: her entire family was killed, but baby Ida was saved by some perverse dispensing of pity. We wonder how such deeply pious people could have been so callous, so murderous towards their Jewish neighbors. They were goaded by centuries of church-sponsored antisemitism, greed and the opportunities of war. Bitter irony stings as the current occupant of Ida's family home makes a bargain with her: he will show her where her family is buried as long as she does not claim her house back. She is a nun, he says, he can trust her. Her aunt Wanda went to fight with the Resistance and came back to find that her entire family was wiped out, not by the Nazis, but by the next door neighbors. This is the j'accuse of the film.
By concentrating in the story of one family, long after the war, the film presents its indictment of the collaboration of the Polish citizenry in genocide from a personal and intimate point of view, and this is what makes it emotionally powerful. We do not recoil and distance ourselves from scenes of violence and atrocity, instead, we are vulnerable to Wanda's and Ida's tragic discoveries. Ida devastates because it concentrates on the choices people make under extraordinary circumstances. In the aftermath, everybody has to live with what they did: the Poles deal with the past by generally pretending they knew nothing and remember nothing. Wanda becomes a sort of avenger. In the figure of Ida, an unlikely survivor, yet not really a survivor, since all Jewishness has been erased from her, the film asks for acknowledgment of the citizens' complicity in murder. Meanwhile, the film shows what little remnants there are left of a once vibrant community: old photographs, a forlorn Jewish cemetery in disrepair.
Ida also provides an interesting contrast in characters between the reticent, modest novice a and her world-weary, provocative aunt. In terms of experiences, Ida is almost a blank slate, while Wanda wears decades of rage, fighting and grief in her every gesture. Both actresses are phenomenal, in particular Kulesza. Wanda likes to chain smoke, sleep around and drink, and goads Ida to give life a try. She is merciless in her pursuit of the murderers, but once they get to the family grave in the woods, her anger gives way to grief and she loses her bearings.
As she finds out the truth, Ida must make a choice. After discovering, in the space of a very short time, the existence of truly banal evil, as well as the possibility of living freely as a young woman in the world, she decides to live outside of history. The ending is happy or tragic depending on whether you think that joining a convent at a young age is a good thing or a living death. At least from a Jewish point of view, Ida's reaffirmation of her Catholicism deepens the scope of the tragedy. There will be no trace left of her family at all.
We don't know if Ida decides to recuse herself from the world because she has found it tainted with horror, or because she expects to glow in purity and religious devotion, or to somehow honor the disappearance of her family by disappearing from the world. She's smart enough to get a taste of what she will be missing after she takes her vows, but it is not enough to convince her that life in the somber world she has briefly experienced is worth it. Perhaps it is as simple as going back to the only womb she knows, which gave her life but also took her real life away from her.