You could take virtually any shot from director Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida," put it in a frame and mount it on a wall. The camerawork is that composed and that expressive.
Shot in old-fashioned Academy ratio (almost square, as in those old TV sets) and rendered in imposing blends of charcoal grays, radiant whites and foreboding blacks, "Ida" revisits the shocking treatment of Polish Jews during World War II, plus the guilt and silence that came along in its aftermath.
Our guide into this world -- a bleak, yet beautiful, emotionally arid Polish landscape -- is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, fresh-faced, dimpled nun-in-training about to take her vows.
But first, the Mother Superior dispatches her to contact her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a complicated, prematurely aging judge who used to be a relentless prosecutor nicknamed "Red Wanda," a reference either to her politics or her penchant for pushing death sentences.
Wanda pledges to help Anna find the graves of her parents.
There's a catch: Wanda informs Anna her real name is Ida, and she's really Jewish, not Catholic. To find out what became of her parents, Ida/Anna must go to an isolated farmhouse where they were hidden from the Nazis by a non-Jewish family during the war.
"Ida" has the look and feel of a 1960s black-and-white "art" movie without artsy pretentiousness. Not much action occurs, save for a depressing moment of shock.
Ida/Anna doesn't do much beyond look placid as unsavory details of her parents' demise surface. This leaves Wanda as the movie's most interesting, fully developed character, and her disappearance in the final act may rob the movie of a strong central character, but the decision Ida/Anna makes (Jew or Catholic?) keeps our interest.
"Ida" opens at the Music Box in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for smoking and sexual situations. 80 minutes. ½