At first glance, “Ida” is the sum­ma­tion of a movie I was cre­at­ed on this earth to hate. It’s a peri­od movie shot in black and white*, it’s about a nun, and it fea­tures a road trip and a sax­o­phone play­er. I almost choked myself out in a rage just typ­ing that sen­tence. Nonethe­less, “Ida” held me cap­tive, and my opin­ion of it has only risen in the days since. (“Ida” wasn’t shot in black and white. It was shot in col­or dig­i­tal­ly and con­vert­ed to black and white using col­or grad­ing soft­ware. This is the case for almost every­thing released in black and white in the last decade at least. I under­stand and appre­ci­ate the rea­sons for shoot­ing this way, but the deci­sion to make a black and white movie feels arch and orna­men­tal in a way that ear­li­er direc­tors choos­ing to shoot on black and white film stock did not. While the black and white grad­ing in “Ida” is of the high­est qual­i­ty, the images bear the unmis­tak­able crisp­ness and res­o­lu­tion of the dig­i­tal era.)

Reli­gion is like a loaded gun. You don’t show it unless you’re going to use it. The gun is going to go off — the only ques­tion is will it end well or not. And when a char­ac­ter is defined by her reli­gious devo­tion, you can be that her faith is going to blow up too. The only ques­tion is will it end well or not. When we meet Ida in Poland in 1962, she a week from tak­ing her vows to become a nun. She vis­its her Aunt Wan­da — home she’s nev­er met before — and learns she is actu­al­ly a Jew. This kind of plot wal­lop usu­al­ly bores the hell out of me, because it means for the next 90 min­utes, I’m going to be sub­ject­ed to end­less ver­sions of “who am I really?’

First, “Ida” is only 80 min­utes long, and sec­ond, while it feels almost like a folk tale at times, the film is very aware of itself. That aware­ness man­i­fests itself in what “Ida” doesn’t do : it doesn’t ask ques­tions like “who am I?” and it cer­tain­ly offers no answers. It is more of a reflec­tion on the lim­its of guilt and anger and accep­tance. The film is made with long, still takes where the cam­era seems to resists mov­ing and instead set­tles itself into the scene at hand. Dra­mat­ic sto­ry points are treat­ed almost as an after­thought, but sus­pense and desire build as the cam­era remains on Ida and/or on Wan­da longer than we are used to, longer than we expect, and the ten­sion con­tin­ues to build when they leave the frame : we see only ner­vous fin­gers stick­ing out of win­ter coats as relics of grief and tragedy are pulled from the ground ; lat­er, in the most mem­o­rable scene of the film, Wan­da puts on some music on the phono­graph and movies in and out of frame with a fran­tic ener­gy . She returns with so much verve that when she leaves the frame the last time, so casu­al­ly and ter­ri­bly, we are com­plete­ly emp­tied. It’s this self-imposed set of bound­aries, struc­tural­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly, that allows “Ida” to become tru­ly cinematic.movies-ida-050214-videoSixteenByNine540

And that’s where the two Agatas come in. Aga­ta Kulesza plays Wan­da per­fect­ly. Oth­ers have said that the film should be titled “Wan­da” because she is the more ful­ly drawn and com­plex of two char­ac­ters. When she first invites Ida into her kitchen and asks her what the nuns told Ida about her, she’s relieved when Ida tells her that the nuns didn’t say any­thing. Wan­da is disheveled, wear­ing a night gown and smok­ing a cig­a­rette, and she has a lover who is get­ting dressed to leave, so it’s easy to imag­ine, stand­ing in for Ida, that Wan­da is a pros­ti­tute. That she is a once respect­ed judge who turns to drink­ing and sex to stave off the shame of her fad­ed career is only one sur­prise about Wan­da that makes her a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter and the per­fect guide for Ida through the land­scape of Poland and of sin.

Aga­ta Trze­bu­chows­ka is the 23 year old star of the film. She has nev­er act­ed before the direc­tor Paweł Paw­likows­ki dis­cov­ered her in a café, but she was the per­fect choice for the old of Ida. Wrapped up in her gray habit for most of the film, Ida’s expres­sion­less face must tell a sto­ry with­out being a blank slate. Like every­thing else in this film, what’s beau­ti­ful about Ida comes from our inabil­i­ty to know if her calm expres­sion is a sta­sis of oppo­sites that can­cel each oth­er out, a bal­anced uni­ty of her many con­tra­dic­tions, or just a bull­shit mask that she’s dying to take off. And Trze­bu­chows­ka is so great at car­ry­ing all these pos­si­bil­i­ties in her stun­ning, love­ly face and in her per­for­mance that it isn’t until after the film ends that we real­ize the answer is D all of the above. The final, hand­held, shaky track­ing shot of Ida walk­ing in the mid­dle of a dirt road, her eyes full of every­thing — an unknown future, a past either rec­on­ciled or roil­ing, a heart either full or bro­ken — while the head­lights of pass­ing cars throw dull halos across her face, is the kind of thing I was put on this earth to love.