Critics have lauded “Ida,” now playing at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, as “Gem,” “Marvel,” “Masterpiece” and “Best Movie of the Year.”

Agata Trzebuchowska stars in a scene from the movie “Ida.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for childr en under 13. (CNS photo/Music Box Films)Before its release in the United States, the cinematic story of a novice nun’s surprising discovery and the quest to which it leads won awards at film festivals from Poland, where the movie was made, to Canada.

Set in the 1960s—before Vatican II, or at least before changes generated by Vatican II took hold in the Polish church—“Ida” offers arresting black and white cinematography, by Ryszard  Lenczewski, and English subtitles to accompany its Polish dialogue. Veteran director Pawel Pawlikowski, a Warsaw native, helmed the movie, and co-wrote its script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Early on, the filmgoer witnesses routine happenings in an austere convent—an outmoded edifice one character labels an “institution,” evoking viewer visions of an asylum or a prison. Nuns in head-to-toe habits pray in Latin unison, eat in complete silence, paint statues. Levity is virtually nonexistent, even among the novices.

That novice group includes Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, a very watchable actress with an expressive face and an appropriately innocent demeanor), who one day, just weeks before she is to profess her vows, is summoned to the mother superior’s office. The superior advises Anna to visit an aunt she’s never met; an orphan, Anna has been raised in the convent where she’s now a novice. Aunt Wanda, never interested in adopting her niece, has finally agreed, it seems, to at least meet with Anna and share the family story.

Agata Kulesza is remarkable as Wanda, flawlessly registering a gamut of emotions. Wanda is a Communist magistrate who in her halcyon days was a prosecutor. Unmarried, she smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, is no stranger to love affairs. This acerbic aunt is adept at sarcasm and given to ironic observations related to religion. “You won’t stop being a nun,” she admonishes Anna, “but Jesus didn’t hide from the world.”

Wanda also drops a bombshell: Anna is “a Jewish nun” whose original name was Ida Lebenstein. Her parents were murdered, apparently along with Wanda’s young son, during World War II.  Anna/Ida was spared that fate and taken to the convent.

In accordance with Anna’s wish, aunt and niece journey to find the relatives’ graves. Along their meandering way they meet and befriend a saxophonist named Lis, who eventually says to Anna, “You’ve no idea of the effect you have, do you?” Indeed, because of or in spite of what her “hood” (as Wanda derisively calls her veil) signifies, Anna is asked to bless an infant, is made privy to a man’s horrendous confession, and is the primary reason her aunt takes a long, hard look at her own life and is able, without trying, to captivate the romantic interest of handsome Lis (a well-cast Dawid Ogrodnik).

At one point Anna loses her veil and literally lets her hair down and steps into Wanda’s shoes—effect can be a two-way street, after all. Does Anna, then, opt out of her scheduled vow-taking?

That’s for the writer-director to say. And Pawlikowski does so quite intriguingly, with the invaluable assistance of capable actors and just the right amount of music playing in the background.

Relatively short at 80 minutes, “Ida” has been rated A-III (adults) by Catholic News Service and PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.