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There’s something austere and almost impossibly brittle about Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), a low-key, old-fashioned and quietly powerful story about a young nun’s search for her true identity amid the ever-present shadows of post-Occupation Poland in the ’60s. Perhaps due to the film’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of dual cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal), leisurely pace or the relative lack of dialogue in many sections, Ida often seems more like a product of the era it portrays than it does of the modern one, as if Pawlikowski’s modest film were some forgotten gem recently unearthed in an obsessive collector’s estate sale.

Beginning with a dialogue-free scene that’s almost verite in its execution, we’re introduced to our young protagonist, Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchoska), a nun-initiate, as she goes about a typical day in the convent with her fellow nuns. Anna’s well-ordered world is thrown into disarray, however, when the Mother Superior tells her know that her heretofore-unknown aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), has surfaced: Anna is to spend time with her and get to know her before taking her vows and sequestering herself away from the outside world.

Wanda, a hard-drinking, take-no-nonsense former state prosecutor (she was known as Red Wanda and used to be both extremely powerful and very feared) is probably the last person that Anna expects to spend time with and her aunt seems to view the whole thing as some sort of cosmic joke. There’s a deeper method to the madness, however, and Wanda shortly drops a bombshell on Anna: her real name is Ida Lebenstein and her family (including Wanda’s sister) disappeared during the Nazi Occupation. Stunned by this sudden revelation about her lineage but determined to uncover the truth about her family’s fate, Anna/Ida and Wanda set out through the frigid Polish countryside. As Wanda questions first one source and then another (although “interrogates” might be the better word), the aunt and niece get ever closer to the truth. Along the way, however, something even more unexpected happens: Wanda and Anna begin to bond, as each woman finds, in the other, something that’s been missing in their own lives. As Anna learns more and more about the world around her, her lifelong convictions are tested at every point: once her eyes are fully open, will she be able to return to the convent or does life now hold other mysteries for her?

There’s a sad, poetic lyricism to Ida that instantly reminded me of both the Italian New Wave and the early films of Jim Jarmusch, particularly Stranger Than Paradise (1984): the fish-out-of-water quality of Anna’s character, especially when jammed up against Wanda’s jaded, cynical worldview, definitely reminded me of the Willie/Eva relationship in Jarmusch’s film, although Wanda ends up much more likable, thanks to generally kick-ass demeanor. In certain ways, Kulesza’s Wanda is an indie-film version of Wendie Malick’s Nina van Horn character from Just Shoot Me: she’s a former big-shot who’s now a boozy shadow of her previous glory, yet retains just enough steel grit and determination to be formidable, when necessary. She’s also effortlessly funny, sassy and a real force-of-nature.

Trzebuchoska, in her big-screen debut, is quite affecting as Anna: although she’s wide-eyed and seems to be as innocent as the omnipresent snow, there’s an underlying curiosity and inquisitiveness that constantly bubbles to the surface, informing her performance in some truly subtle, striking ways. There’s something quite genuine about her journey of self-discovery: Anna never comes across as a forceful or strong personality, in any way, but the ghost-image of her aunt’s square-jawed determination still hangs about her like a fog, informing some of her acts of “rebellion” in the final act. Although she never fully “comes out” of her shell, Trzebuchoska gives us enough hints and peeks beneath Anna’s seemingly serene facade to keep us constantly reminded that a real, live, flesh-and-blood woman resides beneath the habit.

Although I mentioned it earlier, it certainly bears repeating: Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Full of crisp, boundless fields of white snow and deep, rich black tones, the film looks flawless and is an instant throwback (in the best possible way) to those aforementioned “golden-age” independent films. There’s a sense of quiet grandeur to the many exterior wide-shots that not only shows off the Polish countryside to great effect but also helps establish how “small” the characters are, in the grand scheme of things. Above all, Ida is an intensely visual film, something that marks a nice break from the usual overly verbal indie fare.

In every way, Ida is a subtle, quiet film: there is a mystery, of sorts, at its heart but that’s not really where Pawlikowski’s interest seems to lie. There are some fascinating tidbits that we get involving Wanda’s past, crumbs of information that hint at a truly terrifying, amazing backstory but none of this ever comes front-and-center, at least in any significant way. More than anything, Ida is a meditative film about the search for identity and how this is both an internal and external struggle: Anna’s quest to uncover the truth about her family may help her to learn “who” she is but it’s not until she turns her search inward and begins to examine her own heart and motivations that she learns the most important thing: “why.”