Movie Review: Ida

Ida posterWith stark, distinctive black and white photography, Ida, a Polish film with subtitles, grabs attention to its story of a would-be nun who discovers that she is Jewish.

The unusual premise sustains interest in the bare pictures of the convent where the young woman paints a statue of Christ in earnest and prepares to take her vows of chastity, obedience and poverty to become a full-fledged nun. Striking images without music capture the stillness of a winter in Poland, land of the Warsaw native writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski, in the Sixties, as the reality of what had happened to Jews in Poland set in. The young Catholic Jew Ida is highly focused on her task when she first appears. Her concentrated acts of faith never stop. Ida faithfully depicts what some might describe as her relationship with Jesus Christ.

The film is so faithful that it depicts with cold, calculated exactness what one must strive for and achieve here on earth in order to become wedded to God, as nuns are said to be. In this age of debate over what properly constitutes marriage, it is easy to forget that a fundamental idea within any religion proposes communion with a supernatural being. This is Ida‘s dramatization.

The part about being Jewish serves to underscore her character’s devotion to having faith. The Mother Superior or head nun tells the dewy-eyed woman-child to go meet her last living relative before she takes her final vows. This takes place a couple of generations after the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis, who of course conquered and occupied Poland. Ida, or, by her Catholic name Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), does this, traveling to meet her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) for the first time. As with almost everything in this strangely interesting but slow foreign movie, the facts, circumstances and setting are muddled. For instance, the time frame of the story is unclear. At first, I thought it was taking place just after World War 2. Then, it became clear it’s in the early or mid-60s.

But I think writer-director Pawlikowski does this on purpose. He wants the piece of cinema to become stripped as naked as possible to its basic meaning. As the two women – a couple of Jews in search of Ida’s long-lost family, who may have been taken in by kind Poles in heavily Catholic Poland – meet, travel and investigate leads, their bond is formed by choosing to identify themselves by external factors beyond one’s control. In the case of the character of the aunt, Wanda, a Jew who became a Communist Party “judge” in Soviet-occupied Poland, this means she must come to terms with an irreconcilable conflict: am I a Communist (she is not really committed to the ideals) pledged to a future of enacting statism or am I a Jew tethered to an unspeakable past? In this formulation, the question who am I? is never properly posed, let alone answered.

Wanda is the more involving character. She drinks, she smokes, she likes men, music and sex. She understands the Bible better than her young niece Ida. She is wry and biting and this comes from surviving Nazis only to become indebted to Communists, who historically are much worse, which explains why Wanda is the only character in the film to make real progress as an individual, growing and changing before our eyes, through every line, tear and vacancy in her face. Wanda tries to be strong for Ida, hunting down Poles and Jew-haters in pubs, towns and farms who might have known the pre-nun’s family and help solve the puzzle of their mutually monstrous past. Anyone who grasps the meaning of Wanda’s plight and her corollary mission to liberate Ida from being Anna may sense what may become of such a vibrant, strong woman. When Wanda knocks on a door to find her marked, lost family, the happy warrior does so with vigor and certainty. When she comes back to demand answers again, her knuckles hit even harder against the closed door.

All of this is observable to the novitiate nun who wears what Wanda calls the hood and prays everywhere she goes in this gray land of muted sunshine where life is drained of color. Ida sees her aunt dragging on her cigarettes, wallowing in her drinks and tracking those who may have tracked down Jews and, she, too, doubts and becomes tempted. Ida flirts with the inscrutable lead character, who is innocently dimpled as her protective and maternal aunt Wanda points out, accepting her Jewishness. But Ida is not really about what it means to be Jewish, let alone coming to understand the horror of what was done to Jews and why. Ida is about having faith.

And, like Song of Bernadette, stripped of that movie’s idealism and romanticism, Ida has – and is limited to – faith, making this movie a near-perfect if placid depiction of what it means to have faith. When Wanda, for example, picks up a handsome saxophone player on the road to what will ultimately take Ida and her infidel aunt to Lublin, where the story climaxes, Ida shares a sweet, tender moment of joy and discovers the sensuousness of the male artist, as Wanda puts it. As Ida inches toward resolution, the question of whether gypsy artist and Jewish nun will reach a proper human state of ecstasy is answered. Ida literally descends a staircase down what may be a gateway to hell. Soon, Ida will choose between what she holds as sacred and what she holds as profane. She will have done so with knowledge of the full meaning of her acts.

That she answers without hesitation “yes” when her aunt asks when the two first meet whether she’s had any sinful thoughts is a clue to both her choice and its ultimate significance. Making choices is not what lingers after watching Ida, which rightly expresses that the choice between Catholic and Jew is not fundamental. Pawlikowski’s disembodied style of shooting only part of a face or body, holding on interesting wide shots and putting humans down screen, strongly conveys his sense that in faith one becomes emptied of human interest and wedded to God in Heaven. Ida for this reason is curious to the intellectual mind. There is a sense that Ida (and Ida/Anna) is leading to some inescapably urgent conclusion.

And this is partly true, though when it does, one feels nothing and, because by Catholic theology one should strive to be an empty vessel for God, feeling nothing is the point.

Throughout the film, until the moral climax at a graveyard when one falls to her knees as the other rises to the occasion, with bursts and glimpses – deliberately, only fragments – of art and glorious music toward a singularly indelible image of holiness with two people driving into the light, the fact of mass death hangs over the Polish villages and countryside and drains life from both Ida and Wanda. Finally, they are both left with nothing – the nil. How and why this happens and in what context this expression of nihilism matters (for me, not at all), depends on one’s philosophy. Whether Jewish Ida becomes Sister Anna – and the truth of what became of her family – or the nun Anna becomes vivacious Ida comes full circle toward a newly informed, slightly seasoned vow of chastity, obedience and poverty. Ida thus delivers the audience into what it essentially means to marry God.