In 1960s Poland, a novitiate (Agata Trzebuchowska) brought up by nuns in a convent, is set to take her vows, but discovers that she is actually Jewish. She discovers an aunt she never knew existed Agata Kulesza) and together they discover a dark family secret dating back to the Nazi occupation.

WINNER: Best Foreign Language Film, 2015 Academy Awards

Watch 'Ida' at SBS On Demand



In an earlier time, the adjective ‘Bergmanesque’ was often employed to describe, usually—but not always—positively, a certain kind of art film that grappled, more often than not in austere black-and-white, with Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s career-spanning obsessions regarding the big issues of life: death (natural or otherwise), faith (strong or sorely tested) and, in many cases, the complex and volatile relationships between and amongst women.

It is unclear if Polish-born, Paris-based filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski was inspired by Bergman in the conception, co-writing and production of his remarkable new film, Ida. (It could well have been the early work of his fellow countrymen, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Skolimowski and/or Roman Polanski.) Yet even taken on its own terms, separated from precedent, this quietly profound and deceptively spare work represents not only a distinctive, affecting throwback to an earlier kind of foreign language film, but a significant leap forward in Pawlikowski’s four-films-and-counting oeuvre. (He cut his teeth on award-winning documentaries, and his second feature, 2004’s My Summer of Love, opened the 2005 Sydney Film Festival.)

In the snow-covered, early 1960s Polish countryside, sheltered teenager Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) attends to the daily chores of the convent to which she was brought as an orphan and prepares to take the vows that will seal her life as a cloistered nun. Though some distance from the off-screen physical effects of the Cold War, it isn’t difficult to imagine the repressive conditions that exist just out of frame.

Before she can make that commitment, however, the mother superior insists she meet with a surviving relative Anna apparently never knew existed, her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). “Do I have to?,” Anna asks plaintively.

Her apprehensions are not unfounded. It turns out Auntie is a cynical, hard-living Communist judge nicknamed “Red Wanda” for her prosecution of so-called “enemies of the state”. A weary cynic who chain-smokes, slugs vodka and entertains a revolving door of faceless men in her flat that she harvests from a bare-bones, over-lit local pub, Wanda is a dissolute hot mess.

As severely mismatched as these blood-tied strangers are, the gulf between Anna’s wide-eyed, passive innocence and Wanda’s clearly guilt-fuelled transgressive behaviour is not their greatest obstacle. In fact, they are capable of moments of tenderness that suggest the blood can, and has, overcome the gulf.

No, the biggest bombshell is Wanda’s revelation that Anna’s real name is Ida Lebenstein—a Jewish teenager who was rescued when her family was slaughtered during the war. Obviously guilty over the choices she’s made, Wanda takes her young charge on a voyage of discovery that will provide closure, but at a high price. Along the way Anna/Ida is drawn into the secular world courtesy of Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young saxophonist who plays Coltrane’s Naima with his combo and proves a sensitive and perceptive temporary companion.

Ida represents a homecoming of sorts for Pawlikowski, whose first Polish-shot feature this is. Unsurprisingly, the story has some personal resonance to him, as he drew inspiration from memories of friends and family. This connection is obvious in the film’s hushed tone: think the buffeted faith in the face of despair in Bergman’s Winter Light or particularly the tangled female bonds in the mesmerising final half-hour of Persona.

Perhaps inevitably, some critics have characterised this rigorous yet deeply emotional film as more or less of a stunt. That it may be, but even if Ida is a calculated effort to reproduce a vintage era foreign language art film, the stunt is a powerful, resonant, and ultimately successful one, a film about history and identity that will long linger in the mind.


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1 hour 22 min
In Cinemas 22 May 2014,