Circa 1962. The movie opens with three noviatiate nuns gathered around a Christ statute, an obvious gathering place for the girls. It is clear that the girls are friends. The statute is placed outside a convent, which at all times, it and its grounds are covered with snow.
The Mother Superior calls in Anna and tells her that her aunt has asked for her to come to visit her. This surprises Anna who was an orphan from birth. She does not want to go but the Mother Superior insists.
Anna travels by public transportation to the city to meet her aunt, with a short stay-over with another family, before she meets her Aunt, Wanda. Wanda's apartment is obviously well-to-do. (Wanda, it turn out, is a stern judge, who won't be played the fool by anyone. She's also an alcoholic.) She shows Anna pictures of her family including a man, woman and little boy. Anna is told that she did not have a brother. Wanda also reveals that Anna, a Catholic noviate about to take her vows, is Jewish. Her name is Ida. Her parents were killed during the war. Anna does not accept this at first. Wanda guesses that under her novitiate veil, Anna's hair is red, like her mother's. and later we see that Anna is a redhead. Wanda also tells Anna that her mother was very artistic and empathetic and would even make stained glass windows for the cow barn so the cows could have something to look at.
Anna wants to find their bodies, but the Aunt demurs, stating that Jewish victims were buried all over the place during the war, and Anna will never find them. Anna insists and she and her aunt start on a journey to Anna's family home as a starting place to find the bodies. Along the way, Anna stops to pray at roadside shrines, while her aunt waits in the car, smoking. Upon arrival at the family home, a new family lives there. Only the young wife and baby are home and she denys knowledge of the prior owners, telling them that her husband will be home at 4 o'clock and shoos them away. Anna and Wanda pass the hours differently. Anna goes to a church to pray and her aunt drinks and may have picked up a guy. They return to the home to find a very hostile husband.
The aunt is looking for the husband's father as he was the one sheltering Anna's family from the Germans in the woods behind the house. The aunt's questioning bcomes an interrogation and Anna wanders outside. She is drawn to the barn to pet a cow and notices that the barn has a stained glass window. Presumably, the husband tells the Aunt the name of the town where the father is now living.
Along the way to the father's town, they pick up a hitchiker, who happens to be a sax player in a band which is going to celebrate the town's centennial. He and Anna notice each other in the car. Several significant things happen in the town. Wanda questions the father, who is in the hospital. He states that Anna's family was a good family ahd he hid them. Wanda then questions/states that then he killled them and probably used an axe. The father says nothing.
Anna and Wanda share a room. Wanda is contemptuous of Anna's devotion and questions how she can take vows to give up a life she has never experienced. At night, the band plays and Anna refuses to go down to the party. Again, it is implied Wanda had sex with a guy she picked up in the bar as she and Anna afterward fight over virtue with Wanda pointing out that Jesus had a soft spot for Mary Magdelene. Anna leaves the room, angry and confused. She is confronted by husband who states that he will tell her where the bodies are buried if Anna signs away all rights to the house and land he now lives upon. She agrees.
The next day, the husband takes the two women through confusing woods. He does not appear to be looking or a spot but is traveling directly to an area in a dense forest. He digs. Finally, his shovel starts throwing up bones. It is revealed here that he, not his father, killed Anna's parents. Also, he killed the little boy because he had dark hair and was circumcised. He spared Anna because she was a baby and no one could tell she was Jewish. He dropped the baby off at a local church. We also find out that the little boy was Wanda's son. She had left him with Anna's parents, thinking he would be safe with them. The women gather the bones and take them to a family plot, where they rebury them.
Anna returns to the convent to prepare to take her vows. At dinner, a dreary affair, she gets the giggles, but restrains herself. In watching other noviatiates bathe, she recognizes carnal desire within herself. After all of the preparations, the night before the final vow ceremony, Anna goes to the Christ statute and tells God that she is not ready to take her vows. Later, she attends the vow ceremony to watch her friends, and cries.
The aunt seems to continue life. She is seen making breakfast. She opens the window wide to greet the day. She turns on her on her phonograph and lights a cigarette. She turns up the music louder and goes out of the room. She returns, walking very quickly, taps the ash off of her cigarette and walks right out the window, falling to her death (not shown).
Anna returns to the city and attends the funeral. Alone in her aunt's apartment, she takes off her veil. She experiments with drinking alcohol and smoking. She goes to the aunt's funeral, looking hung over. The sax player is also there.
Anna puts on her aunt's sexy clothes and goes to see the sax player that night. They make love. When she asks, "What's next?" the sax player casually responds that he and the band are going to Gdansk and she could come along. Upon further pressure, he says they could get a dog, a house and have children. Live life.
In the morning, Anna is seen putting back on her veil. She quietly leaves with her suitcase. She is last seen walking down a wintry road, presumably back to the convent.