The Polish-born, British-educated writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski is both hugely talented and hugely ambitious, and the combination tends to trip him up. “My Summer of Love” (2004) was a romance about two girls (one of them a young Emily Blunt) that was punch-drunk on its own cinematic rapture; his latest film, “Ida,” is a thing of beauty that overstays its welcome. It’s possible that Pawlikowski would be a great artist if he weren’t so hellbent on convincing us of it.
Nevertheless, the first three-quarters of “Ida” are as astonishing as anything you’ll see at the movies this year. Rigorous and allusive, this is a small story that touches on vast historical events and on metaphysical themes of grace, memory, and redemption. The title character, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a young Polish novitiate preparing to take her vows; the period is a decade and a half after World War II, during the suffocating era of Communist rule. The opalescent black-and-white cinematography (by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) seems to obscure as much as it reveals. Pawlikowski is consciously working in the territory of such postwar masters as Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and the movie has its ears out for the silence of God.
Before she becomes a nun at her rural convent, Ida pays a visit to her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who’s as worldly and fallen as the younger woman is sanctified. An embittered judge and ex-revolutionary, Wanda loves her liquor and men, her cigarettes and Beethoven, and she lets her niece in on a family secret: That Ida was born Anna, a Jew whose mother and father may have been killed by the Polish farmers who hid them.
The road trip these two take into the backcountry to find where the parents are buried forms the heart of “Ida,” and for over an hour Pawlikowski holds us spellbound by observing the charged dynamic between the two women against the gorgeously erased background of a holocaust. The movie’s in love with Trzebuchowska’s face, which is lit like a Vermeer and framed like one, too, with the whiteness of the young nun’s wimple betrayed by eyes that harden over the course of the story. Watching Anna is like seeing a blank sheet of paper slowly fill with writing.
By night, Wanda hits the village bars and gets sloshed while Anna sits up, smoldering with disapproval. By day, they poke into corners of the Polish countryside and Polish psyche that are defined by how much stays underground. In its dispassionate depiction of national amnesia, “Ida” is unforgiving. The unspoken drama is whether Anna herself will be able to forgive. The movie isn’t about the generation that fought the war but the one that came after — what they owe, what they need to know to claim their humanity. Anna and the handsome jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) she meets are young and looking ahead to bigger things (God in her case, John Coltrane in his), but the movie is specifically concerned with what they need to bring with them and what has to be left behind.
These scenes force the audience to do much of the work, but because they’re so well acted and filmed with such intelligent beauty, that work is more than easy — it becomes a gift from a natural filmmaker to the moviegoers he wants to transfix. Yet Pawlikowski’s didactic impulses are evident throughout, in the eccentric camerawork that oppresses the characters down toward the bottom of the frame (and some times beyond), sometimes in the very perfection of the images themselves.
Ultimately Wanda and Anna choose to act in ways that feel dramatically overdrawn given the rich, unforced storytelling that has come before. Where they were people, they become symbols, the result of a filmmaker’s need to manage every last aspect of his film, even down to its ambiguities and our responses to them. The movie still demands to be seen, but it’s an experience that leaves nothing to chance, and chance — the illusion of spontaneity — is what breathes life into art. Ironically, the control that makes “Ida” very nearly a masterpiece is exactly what keeps it from being one.