In "Ida," Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) leads a quiet, devotional and nearly cloistered life at a convent in Poland in the 1960s.
The 18-year-old novice has yet to take her final vows, but she dresses and comports herself as a nun. Her placid, prayerful, sheltered world is turned upside down when the Mother Superior summons her and orders her to meet with a stranger, Wanda Gruz.
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality, smoking.
It turns out Anna is not without family, as she always believed, and Wanda is an aunt who once spurned requests to take custody of the girl. That is just the first of a series of shocks when she goes to Wanda's apartment and learns her birth name is not Anna -- it's Ida Lebenstein -- and she is Jewish.
Cynical Communist Party insider Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a hard-edged woman who tries to lose herself in alcohol and men. After initially dismissing Ida with a curt, "We've had our little family reunion. I must get dressed. I'm late," she agrees to escort Ida to their onetime hometown.
It's a journey filled with sporadic, sharp and challenging questions from Wanda about the existence of God, sinful thoughts and the sacrifice of chastity. Trying to pry answers about the family's onetime home in the country -- now occupied by strangers who are instantly, suspiciously defensive -- is a thorny, sorrowful task that changes both women.
"Ida," from director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski ("My Summer of Love," "Last Resort"), is a meditation on religious and personal identity, secrets, saints, sinners and crushing despair.
The Warsaw-born filmmaker shot "Ida" in eloquent black and white and makes symbolic or intriguing use of shapes, from archways to circular staircases curling down to the sound of Coltrane. It's a lean film in every way, from dialogue to an absence of visual clutter and even clocking in at only 80 minutes.
It shares some historical DNA with Wladvslaw Pasikowski's "Aftermath," which played during the JFilm Festival in late March and approaches World War II atrocities in Poland in the style of a horror movie or thriller. It drives its messages home with the force of a sledgehammer; "Ida" aims for the heart and the head in a quieter, more contained but no less devastating way, relying on one beatific face, another stamped with sadness.
"Ida" is too spare when it comes to conversation and decision-making, although choices are not debated but made after internal soul-searching. Still, it tells its story with poetry and power.
In Polish with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Manor.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.