Within the picture-book perfection of Ida, a Holocaust orphan finds the bitter truth of her lineage 

Still Life in Motion

Still Life in Motion

When we meet the title character of writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski's stark, haunting Ida, she is on the eve of taking her vows as a nun in the Communist Poland of 1962. But Pawlikowski's camera could be trained on the Eastern Europe of a previous century: the stone fortress echoing every footfall, the statues silently judging, the ceramic bowls holding bland nourishment — all rendered in Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski's luminous black-and-white cinematography. Even among her fellow novices, only Ida herself (Agata Trzebuchowska, open-faced and beguiling) looks like a daughter of her time — more so, perhaps, than she resembles a bride of Jesus.

Ida is a daughter of World War II, a convent-reared orphan who knows little about her past and seems never to have asked much. At the insistence of her Mother Superior, though, she journeys to meet her only living relative, an aunt whose existence has been kept from her. Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a once-feared state prosecutor who now sits vacantly on a judicial bench by day and convenes drunken sexual assignations by night. She's the sort of hard, slatternly woman whom a lesser movie would use to teach its younger, more innocent character a series of predictable lessons.

But Pawlikowski shows us instead a person trying to bury political regret with personal failure. What Wanda imparts to Ida is both simple (an almost shruggingly straightforward truth about her lineage) and impossible to comprehend (what it means to have survived the Holocaust, only to endure a morally compromised life under the Warsaw Pact). Pawlikowski's dialogue is so terse as to be nearly epigrammatic, but Kulesza invests each syllable with a lifetime of suffering, indicating still more with her face and her body. She is magnificent.

Ida runs just 80 minutes, but it unfolds with the deliberation of a Catholic ritual, down to the certainty of the outcomes. Even as Pawlikowski's film hits the notes that its fable-like structure demands, however, his static, square compositions and unhurried direction lend nearly every shot a photo-album quality. You replay certain moments in your head in a La Jetée-like sequence of vivid stills that doesn't seem all that different from the motion picture you saw. Yet the movie — its drama, its performances and its eerie visual perfection — sits on your brain, not so much like something as seen as something to which you've been invited to bear witness. Something that feels half-dreamed — but by its characters, fully lived.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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