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Poland's Dark Past Comes To Light In 'Ida'

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in 'Ida' (Courtesy of Music Box Films)
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Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, the third feature film from the Polish-born, UK-based director, is a sojourn into the past of Poland not just for the audience, but also for the women at the heart of the story. The black-and-white cinematography and the constricting Academy ratio immediately signifies a bygone era—Poland in the early 1960s to be precise. The country is still wearing the scars of Nazi occupation, and a young nun named Anna is ordered by her mother superior to reach out to her only surviving family member before she takes her vows. Anna's aunt Wanda, an acid-tongued Stalinist judge, wastes no time with niceties when they meet and reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that she's actually from a Jewish family killed during the war.

Ida and Wanda embark on a road trip through the Polish countryside in an attempt to uncover and reconcile their painful family history. For flashes of levity in an otherwise somber film, Ida and Wanda form an amusing pairing when stuck together in a beat-up Soviet passenger car or in cozy hotel rooms. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska plays her innocent Ida quite expertly off of veteran Agata Kulesza, who imbues the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Wanda with all the bitterness found in a bottle of Polish vodka. This journey becomes revealing not just for the naive Ida—who is only beginning to understand her past—but to Wanda, who shielded herself from persecution the Jews of Poland were subjected to after the war by becoming rank and file within the system. Along the way they meet a handsome saxophonist whose appeal to both women is multiplied by the raw sensuality and taboo nature of the Western jazz—'Trane, to be specific—he performs.

Pawlikowski's camera often frames both Ida and Wanda from afar and in intense closeups, illustrating how the torrid history of a nation intertwines with the personal pasts of the two women. His compositions within the narrow frame can be quite a marvel to see on the screen. Despite the weight of the past felt throughout the film, Ida isn't a didactic history lesson but a snapshot of a country and two women on the verge of a profound transition.

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Ida opens Friday at Laemmle's Royal Theatre (West LA).