Starting tonight, the movie Ida will begin playing at Cinemapolis weekdays at 5:05 p.m., 7:10 p.m., 9 p.m. and then on weekends at 2:40 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 7:10 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Our reviewer Zach Zahos will tell you all about the movie, directed by the (the similarly alliterative) Paweł Pawlikowski.

Ithaca, N.Y. — The first thing you notice while watching Ida is how tall it is. When you see it projected on a screen, you need to crane your neck a bit to take in the film’s unusually vertical images.

That is because Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski chose to shoot his film with an aspect ratio of 1.37, where the frame of the projected picture is nearly as tall as it is wide. If you have seen Casablanca or virtually any other old black-and-white movie, you are familiar with what this pre-widescreen composition looks like. It is ironic, and perhaps a little weird, to get excited about a throwback aspect ratio.

But as implemented by Pawlikowski, it is one formal element among many to negotiate a dialogue between past and present, trauma and tranquility, memory and oblivion that preoccupies this haunting, transportive and, it must be said, darkly comic gem of a film.

Ida opens on a dreary winter landscape outside a monastery, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and a couple other novice nuns carry a Jesus sculpture (in a possible allusion to La Dolce Vita?) and install it on some puny pedestal at the bottom of what looks like a meteor crater. It’s probably not a meteor crater, just some depression in the dirt, but the bleakness and alienating scale of the image registers all the same. That is in part due to that much-ballyhooed aspect ratio: Seen from a great distance, the novices scurry across the bottom of a towering composition, with snow and trees and sky and God (or Nothing?) dwarfing their reverential motions below.

A lot of shots throughout the film push characters, particularly nuns and provincial figures, to the bottom of the frame, sometimes showing nothing below the eyes or nose. Given the vertical room at Pawlikowski’s disposal it is a counterintuitive strategy, since it means you end up staring at a lot of grey negative space and bisected faces. But it is also a very deliberate one, one that abstracts otherwise banal moments (nuns eating soup, for instance) and adds a mystical, Tarkovsky-like atmosphere to a story with atheistic undertones.

Consider Ida’s dramatic crux: In 1962 Poland, just days away from delivering her vows to become a nun, orphan Anna reaches out to her only living relative at her prioress’s suggestion. She rolls into the city to find her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a chain-smoking, cosmopolitan woman who for all we know could have rolled her eyes off-screen when seeing her niece walk in wearing a habit, because she takes no time to break Anna the news: “You’re Jewish.” Also, your name is Ida Leibenstein, not Anna, and your parents died in the Holocaust. Time to light another cigarette.

More silent than visibly shaken, Ida does only what a devout believer in the afterlife must do and decides to find her family’s remains. Wanda knows where to find them and agrees to drive them both, since she has some business of her own to settle when she gets there. Vehicular obligations do not preclude Wanda from pocketing some booze for the trip, a reckless decision that nonetheless springs from a harsh historical consciousness. She offers Ida the first of many peeks into her hard-won cynicism with the question, “What if you go there and discover there is no God?”

The way I’ve described it so far, Ida sounds like some deflating, hand-wringing Bergman film, and perhaps it’s got a few of those qualities. But Ida reminds me more of Nebraska, my favorite from last year, which is also a black-and-white road movie with a dark and subtle sense of humor. The comedy here sprouts from the intellectual and emotional ravine that spans between Ida and Wanda. This film inverts the typical mother-daughter relationship, for here the older woman is the modern one, a former power broker under Stalin and an unashamed seducer of many men. Ida, meanwhile, is austere and reticent, her skin translucent. She is just about a tabula rasa when we first meet her.

The two of them don’t engage in much back-and-forth banter, but they both change after spending time together. For Ida, this leads to recognition of absurdity, like when she returns to her nunnery and bursts into laughter during dinner: She looks up from her plate and cannot take the imposed silence, save for the dainty clinking of silverware, seriously. For Wanda, this exchange barrels down to depression, but Pawlikowski even finds a way to alleviate the weight of her alcoholism, if also highlight its legitimacy. Sitting in a bar at daytime, Wanda downs multiple drinks as a busy waiter passes her table in long strides. He takes her glass, returns with a filled one and retrieves the newly empty one to repeat the process, all in the span of one long take.

There is even potential romance in Ida’s future, once the handsome alto saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) hitchhikes into view. He and his rendition of Coltrane’s “Naima” represent not only sex but also the tobacco, intoxication and vanity from which she swore abstinence. While Ida never goes on philosophical diatribes and remains hard to read, intellectually, she sums up what the bliss of a hazy, bohemian relationship means to her when she later gets a taste of it and says, “I’m not thinking.” To her bitter aunt wrecked with survivor’s guilt, such a state sounds like paradise.

But Ida is ultimately a film about thinking — how we must do it to grapple with the past, and yet how we often choose not to. How do you react to the news that your family perished in a catastrophe you know little about? Do you say a prayer for them in the name of the Lord, or do you learn Yiddish and recite the Kaddish? Do you visit the village where your parents died and bless the child of a Polish woman who very likely stood by as they were shoved into an unmarked grave — or maybe even did the shoving — because she asks you to, or does that dilemma even register? Do you change when confronted with life-changing news? How the hell do you change?

I’ve been racking my brain for a good two weeks now, since I first saw this film, and I am not sure if I can conclude whether Ida ends on a positive note or not. It certainly ends on shaky ground — literally, since the camera shakes a great deal in the last shot. The cut to black startles, arriving only 80 minutes in (80 minutes!!), but in no way does the ending cheat or withhold any missing piece. Your takeaway will rely on how you not only watch this film but see it: Is all that empty space floating above Ida, Lis and Wanda’s heads actually empty or obscuring some omnipresent deity? To answer is to betray some personal prejudice, but if there’s any piece of art that can topple existing beliefs or else make them iron-clad, here it is.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.