Minimalist to the Max

In Ida, two women, one a devout Catholic, the other a disappointed Communist, travel Poland’s drab landscape to discover their personal histories.

In Ida, two women, one a devout Catholic, the other a disappointed Communist, travel Poland’s drab landscape to discover their personal histories.Although Ida won last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it looks as if it’s a European “New Wave” art film from a half-century ago. It’s done in hard-focus black-and-white, with no tricky camera moves, no special effects; sort of “minimalist realism.” The actors are often set low in the frame underneath endless gray skies or cathedral-like high ceilings, as if the characters were unconsciously feeling the pull of heaven — or being oppressed by powers beyond their control.

It’s 1962, and much is happening in the world. The Soviet Communists, who removed the Nazis after WWII, are still in power in Poland, ruling the country with a fierce and bloody Stalinist hand. The youngest bishop in the country is Fr. Karol Józef Wojtyla, a deeply religious man, gregarious and playful, who also speaks 12 languages. (Sixteen years later, in 1978, he would become the first non-Italian pope in 400 years. He took the name John Paul II.)

Born during the German occupation in Poland, 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who has lived her entire life in a palatial convent, is oblivious to anything beyond its ancient walls. All she knows is that she is eagerly awaiting the day when she can achieve her dream of taking her final vows and become a nun. But her Mother Superior insists the young woman must leave the convent for the first time to meet her only living relative, a woman Anna never knew existed.

So with suitcase in hand, and wearing her postulant headpiece, Anna sets out for the city of Lodz. She finds her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), in her penthouse apartment, smoking and drinking and kicking out last night’s one-night stand. She learns that her aunt is the infamous “Red Wanda,” a low-level Communist judge who ruthlessly sent many “enemies of the people” to their death.

Wanda bludgeons Anna with a secret she could not have imagined. “Your name is not Anna. It’s Ida. Ida Lebenstein. You’re Jewish.” The young woman stares, dumbfounded. Jewish? Not christened? “You’re a Jewish nun,” Wanda laughs cruelly.

Wanda knows nothing except that Ida’s family was killed in the war. She sees Ida’s arrival as an excuse to unearth old secrets. In a strange road trip, the two women drive across the flat, drab Polish landscape to the country village of Ida’s birth. In Wanda’s East German-made Wartburg 311 they speed to their family’s past and Poland’s painful history. Wanda never ceases to mock Ida’s naiveté. “What if you go there and discover that there is no God?” she asks Ida.

Wanda insists that Ida should experience worldly pleasures before she takes her vows. She picks up a hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), who turns out to be a saxophonist, playing a gig that night in the ballroom of the local hotel. Struck by Ida’s beauty, he tries to chat her up, but she fends him off. “You have no idea the effect you have on people, do you?” he tells her.

When the women find the house where Ida was born, the detective story begins. Who killed Ida’s family, and how? Where were their bodies buried? Why was Ida saved? Why did Wanda not make contact with her before?

The answers are horrifying. But in a world ruled by Nazi monsters, it’s not a unique tale. Everyone who survived those times had horror stories to tell. And with such stories, knowing their truth does not necessarily set you free.


Quick Take: On the eve of taking her final vows, a young postulant learns that she is Jewish.
Special Appeal: Unforgettable story and exquisite photography.
Players: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik.
Director/Co-Writer: Pawel Pawlikowski (The Last Resort, 2000; The Woman in the Fifth, 2011)
B&W, 82 minutes, 2014. In Polish with English subtitles
Showing two times at the Tryon Film Society: Mon and Tues., May 11 and 12 at 7pm

Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Assn) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Assn.) Email her at

Tryon Film Society

The Tryon Film Society meets every 2nd and 4th Monday and Tuesday nights at 7pm in the Tryon Theatre. “We show in Tryon,” says owner Barry Flood, “the kinds of contemporary movies you can see only in big cities like New York and Washington D.C.” — that is, documentaries, foreign-language films, and small-release art films. The theater is perfect small-town size: 75 seats upstairs in the balcony and 205 downstairs. Wine and beer are available. Regular admission is $8. Film society films are $6.50 for film-society members. Retired schoolteacher Flood has owned the theater for 25 years. On regular nights, it shows first-run big-release movies, “the kinds of movies retirees like,” he says (i.e., romantic movies and films based on true stories: Secretariat, American Sniper. No teen flicks, no sci-fi franchises.) Flood insists that no matter how hard he and his staff of two might work, “my business can’t make money unless Hollywood makes good movies” — and that is sometimes a problem. Flood made national news (or shall we say an entertainment-industry uproar) when he closed down his theater for six weeks in 2000 because “there weren’t any good movies.” His passionate small-town protest against clueless big Hollywood producers was the stuff of classic American movies. It was as though Jimmy Stewart himself was leading a campaign to get better movies. Flood hasn’t closed down the theater since, but he’s still on his soapbox exhorting Hollywood to make pictures people want to see. And the film lovers in Tryon are the better for it. For detailed schedule of all the films showing at the Tryon, check out or call 828-859-6811


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