NEW YORK — Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is the best film yet released in 2014. A festival darling since last autumn, this black and white meditation on identity set in early 1960s Poland is a stunner on every level. The acting, cinematography, music, costumes, hair styles and use of locations are all remarkable, but work to serve a striking and emotional story about two women coming to terms with their places in the grand sweep of history.

It is a tale with universal themes, but rooted in the specificity of the Jewish experience. A young woman named Anna (played by first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska) has lived her whole life in a convent. Just days before she is set to take her vows, she is told she has a living aunt named Wanda. The older woman (played by Agata Kulesza) is a complex character: a libertine and a drunk, but also a barrister and, earlier in life, a celebrated Partisan and radical communist called Red Wanda. More importantly, she was born Jewish, and while she shed her religious upbringing for ideology, young Anna (actually named Ida) had no clue until now about her roots.

The rest of the film is something of a road picture, as Anna and Wanda go back to their village from before the war. What they uncover there (and along the way) would seem anticlimactic if I just typed it out. Pawlikowski is that rare creature — a true film artist — and the visual manner in which he teases out plot points is something that demands attention.

I had the good fortune to speak with the director, whose previous work includes the English language film “My Summer of Love,” in New York City. A truncated version of that conversation is below.

There are images that are so beautiful that I missed the subtitles. That shot as they walked to the woods as the tiny people are contrasted with the huge trees…

Nothing substantial is said at that moment, don’t worry.

Still, it’s a testament to how remarkable this movie is, that I would get lost in its imagery.

I did my best to contain that. I cut out some gorgeous shots – some that were unjustifiable within the story. I didn’t mean for it to be beautiful, but just “this is the world they are in.” But I decided to do every scene in one shot, so you really focus on that shot. Not a lot of traditional coverage or cutting.

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza co-star in Polish film 'Ida,' a mesmerizing meditation on identity. (courtesy: Music Box Films)

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza co-star in Polish film ‘Ida,’ a mesmerizing meditation on identity. (courtesy: Music Box Films)

The opening image is so striking. It looks like an old photograph with shallow focus, then she moves and you recognize that this is video – a very unique texture.

It was my first time shooting on video, only because there are very few places to develop black and white film in Europe now. There is a lab in Berlin, but it’s so much fuss, but it is easier to control with video now.

Did you ever consider shooting in color?

No.

Did you ever consider shooting in English? You’ve made English-language films in the past.

I never make a film in a language outside of what the characters should be speaking.

It takes a long time into the movie before when you know when it takes place.

‘It becomes a meditation about destiny and paradoxes of life. About a mass murderer and individual responsibility’

I had a producer who wanted me to put a caption down – Poland, 1962. I said this was against the very principle of the film, where things are suggested but nothing is spelled out. Also, so that the movie is timeless, a meditation. And it works like that. I show it in Columbia or Korea where they don’t have a clue about Polish history, but it becomes a meditation about destiny and paradoxes of life. About a mass murderer and individual responsibility.

Polish filmmakePolish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, photographed in New York City, April 2014 (courtesy: Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)r Pawel Pawlikowski, photographed in New York City, April 2014 (courtesy: Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel.)

Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, photographed in New York City, April 2014 (courtesy: Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)

It definitely works on a macro level about grand themes, but it is certainly rooted in the Jewish experience. Are these characters based on anyone specific?

Similar fates. Jewish kids who grew up in a Polish family or monastery without knowing. That happened quite a lot. Over the years I read and heard stories, but this wasn’t based on just one. I do recall the story of a Polish priest – he goes by the name of Jacob Weksler – who discovered that he had Jewish origins. So that was food for thought.

There’s the famous case with Madeline Albright, also. Now, the movie is called “Ida” but it is just as much about the other character.

Wanda is a composite figure. The idea was inspired by a woman I met in Oxford. I had a Polish professor, a reformist Communist. He invited me for tea and his wife was a funny older woman. She was witty and humane and worldly – a really wonderful “old bird.” After I left Oxford I learned that Poland was requesting her extradition on the grounds of crimes against humanity. In the 1940s and 50s she was a state prosecutor under Communism in charge of show trials. She engineered the deaths of innocent people that were “in the way.”

Was she, like Wanda, a partisan during the war?

No, she spent the war in Russia. With the Red Army. She was a pre-war Communist. An idealist who came back and became part of the establishment – like Wanda. So this was part of the idea with the character – that in one lifetime you can do all sorts of things. You can be wise, but still do crazy things.

It’s important to realize that the idealism of Communism in Europe was a faith that promised a lot. And understandable that many people – including Jews – would be drawn to an ideal that said Nationalism wasn’t the way forward.

But Wanda has nowhere to go now. She’s an energetic woman with a clear sense of a mission and times have left her behind a little.

And she has the line of the year, when she’s drunk, after caught in the arms of a stranger: “This Jesus of yours loves people like me.” How much of her ultimate fate is accelerated by this visit from her niece?

Young nun Anna is about to get a big surprise in Pawel Pawlikowski's film 'Ida.' (Courtesy: Music Box Films)

Young nun Anna is about to get a big surprise in Pawel Pawlikowski’s film ‘Ida.’ (Courtesy: Music Box Films)

She would have slipped ahead toward a vegetative state. Seeing the girl makes her confront what happened. The pain, the loss of family, the loss of what could have been. Also she didn’t want to highlight her Jewish origins. A lot of people in the Justice System and State Security in Poland were of Jewish origins – but they very often chose a non-Jewish name. Not that they were hiding their ethnicity but that they were transcending their origins – it is all about going forward. Now there is this thing from the past, of course, who reminds her of her sister.

And she has such a remarkable look, so striking and timeless.

I wanted majestic photographs. Shooting without traditional coverage, we were able to focus all our time on the images in each shot. In the lovemaking scene we tried it and thought, let’s just put the camera upside-down and see what comes of it.

Let’s talk about John Coltrane. Was his music in the culture in early 1960s Poland or was this just you sneaking in something you love?

He was huge at the time. There was a jazz revolution in Poland at that time. Poland was the least censored country in the Communist Bloc in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was called “the jolliest barrack in the Communist camp.” The other Eastern European countries were all looking to Poland at that time – a bigger margin of freedom in the arts.

Not Czechoslovakia?

That was later, after 1965. From 1956 in Poland it was very special. It wasn’t so free that you could vote for another party, but there was cultural openness and wonderful art. Modern composers like Penderecki. Music that the Soviets would have stomped on. There was art that would never be allowed in the Soviet Union or Bulgaria or East Germany.

Was it John Coltrane in the script from day one?

Yes. “Naima,” especially, because I used to play that song myself on the piano. “Naima” and “Equinox” is in there, too. But I needed something that was all encompassing and spiritual, for her to fall in love with the boy. She doesn’t fall for him by his physical presence. The music envelops her – she is enchanted by it. “Naima” is a mesmerizing song.

Her last night “in the world” — she puts on shoes, a nice dress, she slugs some vodka from a bottle, she goes out, makes love, dances, she packs it all in to one night. Does she know that she’s only got one night? Does she know that she’s going to go back to the convent?

She is stunned. The experience of everything has stunned her, she’s empty, and she hears her aunt’s line about taking the vows: “What sort of sacrifice is it if you haven’t tried it?” Her actions are a declaration of love for her aunt.

We live in a world of movie franchises – the sequel is ready to go.

Yeah, yeah, she discovers she’s pregnant. I know. Maybe some day. If I’m stuck for ideas. But I don’t think so. The lead actress doesn’t want to act any more. She isn’t really an actress. I found her in a cafe.

What? Waitaminute. That’s a cliché, people always say that. You serious?

Yes, she works in the cafe downstairs from where I live. She was reading a book, she is a student of philosophy and anthropology and art history. She is actually doing her exams now, today. A very bright girl. And I had been looking high and low for actresses and theater students, I found her. And she didn’t want to act. But she agreed to meet with me because she had seen my films. So I tried her out and she was great because she had no actress-y qualities at all. Not a histrionic bone in her body. She thinks before she speaks.

How did she know how to deal with the technical stuff? The camera and …

It was a good mood on the set, a small movie. We had time to talk and rehearse.

Are there calls for her to act again? Or model? She’s beautiful!

She’s not interested. But she’s 21, who knows?

The other actors were jealous?

The older actress, no, they got on very well. Maybe some of the others her age, they were students of theater, studying for four years – I think some of them may have been pissed off they didn’t get the lead role.

What’s the name of this cafe, so I can go there and get discovered?

“Relax” in Warsaw.

Anna, now Ida, in the world. (courtesy: Music Box Films.)

Anna, now Ida, in the world. (courtesy: Music Box Films.)

“Ida” opens on May 2 at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York, and at the Royal Theater in Los Angeles. In following weeks it opens in art houses from Vancouver to Boca Raton. Look for your city here and check your local listings for additional programming.