Young Anna is a novice in a Polish convent. It’s 1962, the year the Second Vatican Council gathered in Rome. Challenges and changes are in the air.
Described as tiny when she was brought to the convent school, Anna has no knowledge of her roots. She has spent her life in the company of women who have taken lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – and have surrendered their hearts and souls to Christ. She knows all about cloistered life and can see where it leads. Anna feels that she is one of them. She is about to take her vows.
Against the backdrop of postwar Communism and the lingering evidence of Nazi occupation, writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski juggles highly nuanced questions of self-identity, nature versus nurture, loyalty, allegiance – and the force of destiny. He and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz have fashioned the complex story of a soul.
Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna is the calm at the center of the storm. Swirling around her character is the wreckage of a family history to which she has had no attachment. Until now. The Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) wants Anna to meet her only living relative. She must leave the convent and, for as long as necessary, meet with her mother’s sister, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Anna’s certainty of her vocation, her commitment to being the bride of Christ, will be severely tested. It is a story-telling device that resonates with a small group of powerful films that deal with nuns – including Green Dolphin Street, Black Narcissus, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Nun’s Story, The Song of Bernadette, and Thérèse. Wanda’s aunt tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is a Jew.
Ida becomes determined to find her parents' grave. "What if you go there and discover there is no God?" asks Wanda.
Ida will discover that Haim and Róża were murdered by a local Nazi sympathizer who then occupied their house. His family lives there still. It is not an uncommon story. He will take Ida to the gravesite on the condition that no further claim be made on the property. She agrees. Ida and Wanda watch as the man digs into the earth and recovers the remains. They take them to a family plot in a rundown cemetery in Lublin. But the odyssey of the novice is not yet finished.
Ida must resolve her chance encounter with an attractive jazz musician, an alto sax player (Dawid Ogrodnik). His renditions of music by John Coltrane have penetrated her imagination. He suggests she follow him instead.
Agata Kulesza delivers a soul-stirring performance as “Wanda”. Her character is that of a judge, an insider for the Communists, an alcoholic with a not very discriminating sexual appetite. She admits she has sentenced anti-Communists to death. Wanda is fond of classical music. “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint,” she says to Ida. “This Jesus of yours adored people like me.” Wanda puts on a recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter” and leaps from her apartment window.
IDA is currently screening at the Clay in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley, Camera 3 in San Jose, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.