It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Pawlikowski; Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski; Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014.