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'Ida' review: Truly unforgettable tale of postwar Poland

"Ida" is an austere, studious throwback to a time when films could be nuanced character studies. Credit: Music Box Films

Let us give thanks and praise to the Motion Picture Association of America for imposing a PG-13 rating on "Ida," thus preventing too many 13-year-old Americans from being exposed to a black-and-white movie set in postwar Poland that confronts issues of guilt, sin, identity, God, and the cosmic accidents of the universe. Or for allowing impressionable children to see exactly what cinema can achieve, and so rarely does, thus having their standards raised to heights that can only lead to a moviegoing life of continued disappointment and bitter tears.

To call "Ida" a masterpiece sounds trite; the word has been overused, especially regarding some very forgettable movies. "Ida" is unforgettable, though -- for its starkly evocative photography, refined musical sensibility and mostly for Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's sensitive handling of a story whose seething volatility is incubated in what might be called extreme innocence.

Anna (the debuting Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her final vows of sisterhood at the rural convent where she has grown up, her only family being older nuns and her fellow novitiates, her life being one of devotion, duty and prayer. On the eve of her investiture, she is told by the mother superior that she has an aunt, and Anna must go see her before being allowed to join the order. Thus begins the young girl's revelatory journey. And the viewer's.

It's no spoiler to say that Anna is Jewish, and her birth name was Ida, and that her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) was once a judge of Poland's Communist courts known as "Red Wanda" who regularly sent "traitors" to their death, and now questions -- like Ida -- the way random destiny and a capricious universe has landed her where she is. "Ida" is a road movie of sorts, a travelogue into Ida and Wanda's family history with side trips though anti-Semitism, jazz, sexual enlightenment, collective Polish guilt and the Holocaust. It is a remarkable movie, for adults, who may leave crying it like children.

PLOT In 1962 Poland, a young girl about to join an order of nuns discovers that she's Jewish.

RATING PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking)

CAST Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik


BOTTOM LINE Likely to remain the best movie of the year.

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