It's almost difficult to watch Ida and understand it as a contemporary work. It feels at all times like a first look at a lost treasure, like a salvaged print from some unknown master. That Ida is a film produced last year, that it's the work of the rather un-prolific Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowki (of My Summer of Love and Woman in the Fifth) seems almost impossible. If you'd shown me this film without introduction, I'd have tremendous difficulty carbon dating it. Ida bears the mark of Bresson in its black and white austerity, in its use of faces. It has DNA pulling from quieter moments in French and Czech New Wave. At times, it's starkly neo-realist. That it's set in 1960s Poland tells us nothing, as the film's relationship to the pasts and presents of its characters is always emotionally immediate. While I'm sure there are plenty of marks that would read as temporally incongruous, if you told me Ida was from 1967, I might buy it. What I'm saying is that somehow the experience of watching Ida is one of viewing an artwork out of time. There's something of it that makes you conscious of the difference between experiencing a work you understand as 'new' and one you approach as a sort of pre-ordained, already canonized work of 'classic' cinema. Ida feels like it's already a classic.
So much of Ida, too, is so right. We follow Anna, a novice nun, as she's sent away by the mother superior to visit her only living relative, an aunt she didn't know she had named Wanda. She's told to take as much time as she needs, and in this we understand that Anna is walking into something larger. Trzebuchowska's face is the perfect mask, the perfect placid surface for close-ups. She's at once detached and searching, reading each new piece of information Wanda reveals about her past without knowing the right reaction. She's meditative and calm where Wanda, as it turns out, is volcanic. Kulesza's Wanda is brilliantly vicious, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking woman with a jaded outlook befitting a lifetime of tragedies and disappointment. When Anna goes to her, the film becomes a somber road movie as the mismatched duo seeks the truth of their shared past in WWII.