Anna, a young Polish novitiate, is about to take her vows, but before doing so, her superiors demand that she pay a visit to her single surviving family member—an aunt whom she’s never met.
Wanda turns out to be a sullen, hard-drinking woman who informs Anna almost immediately on arrival that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She’s Jewish, and her parents were murdered during World War II.
Ida has been in the convent since infancy and knows very little about the world. She seems astonished simply to be traveling on a bus, and it takes a while for her to digest this new information about herself and the evils of the wider world.
Wanda agrees to help her niece find her parents’ burial site—a mission that takes them to the bedraggled farmhouse Ida’s parents once owned. It’s now inhabited by God-fearing Poles who claim that “Jews never lived here.” Wanda knows they're lying, and they know she knows.
Wanda has an even darker past to deal with. Not only did she lose her sister and son during the Holocaust, but after the war she was a prosecutor who conferred death sentences on a number of Polish soldiers resisting the communist regime. Now she’s a small-town judge, hanging around in bars and bringing men home at night.
The story grows a shade lighter when Wanda picks up a young hitchhiker with a saxophone in his case. Ida takes a fancy to him, though it’s hard to discern through the deer-in-the-headlights expression that seems to be planted on her face.
The film’s black-and-white cinematography is extraordinary, and the pace is slow enough to allow us to savor it scene by scene. Forests, crumbling buildings, Wanda’s stylish apartment, city streets, a well-lit dance hall. The luminosity of the footage acts as a welcome counterweight to the sometimes grim drift of the plot. We see the world afresh through Ida's limpid but strangely unfathomable eyes, both the good and the bad. And in the lines of Wanda’s jaded but expressive face we see decades of unexpressed agony, guilt, and disappointment.