" Ida was just a little luxury I afforded myself, thinking that it will be a harmless film and nobody will see it," says the director, whose work includes My Summer of Love (2004), which introduced Emily Blunt to the world, and The Woman in the Fifth (2011) with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Instead, at festivals here and abroad, Ida has prompted debate and awe. Set in 1962, when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, Ida is about a young novitiate, an orphan, who discovers she has an aunt. She is sent to the city to meet this woman before she takes her vows, and so a journey begins.
Ida stars the unknown, untrained Agata Trzebuchowska, a college student spotted by a friend of Pawlikowski's in a Warsaw cafe. The aunt is played by another Agata - Agata Kulesza, a veteran Polish actress. Her character is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-line Communist prosecutor who has sent people, priests among them, to their death. She is also Jewish.
Together, these two strangers connected by blood go on a quest to find out what happened to the niece's parents during World War II.
"The story had many false starts," says Pawlikowski, who spent his childhood in Warsaw, his adolescence in Britain, and now, in his mid-50s, is back in Poland - in the same neighborhood where he was raised. "But once I actually got the essence - two women, together, very dissimilar, different temperaments, different ages, and one hasn't seen anything and the other one has seen too much - then I had this road-movie trajectory, and I knew I was on safe ground dramatically."
Safe, but as it turns out, controversial. At Jewish film festivals where Ida has screened (including in Philadelphia), audience members wondered why Pawlikowski didn't go further in his indictment of Poles' complicity with the Nazis. In his homeland, some in the old guard questioned the movie's agenda, its condemnation of people who may have seized property from Jews during the war.
"I've already gone through fire," the soft-spoken Pawlikowski, who has shown his film in Korea, at Columbia, at Sundance, says with a laugh. "All these incredibly different reactions - some are disturbed by it, or moved. Others are angry that it doesn't do things that they'd like it to do. A lot of people would like the film to be different. Polish nationalists don't like it, feminists in France . . .. Some people think it's too formal, other people think it's too oblique."
It is, visually speaking, spare and exquisite. Ida, which opens Friday at the Ritz Five and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, is shot in long single takes, framed off-center, with a sense of space, of air, surrounding its protagonists. The film has a simplicity, a purity, that is almost shocking.
"It's where my head was going," Pawlikowski says. "I find myself escaping more and more in life, away from noise and fake energy and from too much information.
"In a way, I wanted an anti-film. All of cinema, its claims to profundities, its emotional trickery and camera movements, the music, the cuts. For me, I've had enough.
"Why move the camera? . . . I wanted this film to be like a meditation, not just a narrative . . . I wanted to induce a certain state of mind in the audience. They watch the image, they feel the character, they feel the space, they enter that space, and they don't constantly try to guess what happens next. They don't crave information - well, they might crave it, but after five minutes, they've learnt that they're not going to get any. So they just kind of float along with the film.
"It was a bit of a gamble in some ways, but then I had nothing to lose. Because it's so uncommercial, it didn't cost much. It was a film made in a different, parallel universe.
"And then it turns out to be maybe my most commercial film!"