A young Polish orphan knows nothing beyond the convent in which she is raised. It is the early 1960’s, and on the eve of her vows, she is informed that she cannot go through with the ceremony until takes the step to leave her home and track down her aunt, a woman who was only recently discovered by the nuns of the abbey and refused to take custody of her. The young Anna has never strayed from her strict religious upbringing, but must confront the outside world head on in order to discover what dark secrets are harbored in her family that could cause her aunt to turn a cold shoulder to her blood relative. So begins Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s powerful new family drama.

Ida does not waste time announcing its aesthetic intentions. Pawlikowski has always had a flair for camera work, but nothing he has done is quite like this. Presented in the Academy ratio and shot in sumptuous black and white, it has an undeniably retro feel. What sets it apart, however, is how Pawlikowski and cinematography team Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal use camera angles, set design, framing and shot composition to tell their story in an utterly unique manner. Preying on the expectations of years of film theory, the filmmakers differentiate their work by taking the path of most resistance. It is difficult to ignore the way the opening sequences in the convent feel so suffocatingly vertical, with all of the characters shackled to the bottom half or third of the frame as columns, trusses and windows stretch out ever upward around them. These young nuns in training toil in their ascetic lives, dwarfed by the very establishment they serve. It is a straightforward visual metaphor, and one that has certainly been seen on film before, but it is approached with such panache, such a verve and unique energy that it demands the attention of its audience. Even as our hero Anna departs the convent and ventures forth into the real world, with the frame opening up away from the oppression of its initial setting, Pawlikowski and co. excel in placing the camera in the last place it would ever be expected to be found. It is rare that an actor is not at least partially out of frame, creating a sense of turmoil, mystery and incompleteness, effortlessly mirroring the murky past of its protagonist and her new found family. For a film that takes its time establishing shots, for a film so measured, exacting and judicious in its editing, Ida is a remarkably propulsive cinematic experience.

Lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska should be particularly thankful for the film’s aesthetic choices; the camera loves her and her angled profile, drinking her in as often as possible. Though she is often partially obscured and hidden below layers of clothes and her veil, and confined to the borders of the frame, she effortlessly commands the screen with her soulful eyes and worried brow. As a young, sheltered ingenue so clearly over her head and out of her element in comparison to her freewheeling and free-thinking aunt, she shrinks away into these corners without ever losing her sense of self, even as that sense of self begins to crumble away. For her first ever film performance, Trzebuchowska is exceptional. She is certainly in good company, as Agata Kulesza is equal to the task of Anna’s foil.

At its core, Ida is an odd couple road trip film (such a distinction seems absurd considering its Holocaust-adjacent subject matter), and Kulesza’s role is fundamental in coaxing Anna out of her shell. She provides a required depth that keeps Wanda from rolling over into caricature or parody. It is an outsized role, with all of its bluster and comic relief, as Kulesza handles these moments without overplaying her hand or upsetting the delicate tone of this complex piece. It is the sort of vital veteran performance that provides a vital foundation for a newcomer lead to latch onto. The two leads are fully committed to their characters, a crucial feather in the cap of the filmmakers as the plot steers into the darker recesses of human history.

Ida positions itself carefully in the way it is presented to its audience. The Academy ratio, the black and white cinematography, the Holocaust related subject matter, all of it gives the film the outward flourishes of stuffy prestige, the sort of film that is well received because it is expected of such projects, regardless of quality. But Pawlikowski has the bona fides to rise above the banal, consistently surprising the audience with his aesthetic choices and breathtaking shot compositions. With a true and authentic third act climax, and backed up by assured, note perfect performances from Trzebuchowska and Kulesza, Ida is a tragedy of family secret shame that demands attention and will not soon be forgotten.