Polish with English subtitles.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 22 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an 18 year-old Polish orphan raised by nuns. Her story is set in the early 1960s when Communists ruled the nation with an iron fist and many secrets were suppressed. As the film opens, the young novice is about to take her vows to become a nun herself, but her Mother Superior is not looking for an easy acquisition for her order. She wants Anna to go visit the only living relative she has to ensure that she has a real vocation.
For her part, Anna would prefer to stay in the convent and get on with her vows. The relative, an aunt, has never contacted her or expressed any interest in her. But, Anna reluctantly must travel to Lodz to meet her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Aunt Wanda turns out to be a once-powerful state prosecutor now reduced to a minor judgeship dealing with such cases as a man mowing down a neighbor’s tulips. At her apartment, Wanda is just saying goodbye to a lover when her niece arrives. This is no warm and fuzzy first meeting,
Wanda coolly observes, “So you are a Jewish nun.” This is startling news to Anna, as well as the information that her Jewish parents had named her Ida. This first meeting is so brief that Ida (as we will now call her, pronounced “Eeda”) doesn’t even open her little suitcase held together with a belt. Ida returns to the station for the train back to the convent.
Wanda has second thoughts and rushes to the station to pick up the girl. The jarring revelations keep coming. Is there a grave Ida could visit? Wanda tells her: “They have no graves; no Jews do. No one knows where the bodies are.”
Ida wants to discover more about her parents—the mother was Wanda’s sister—but Wanda discourages her. Ida wants to see the family farm, but Wanda tells her: “What if you go there and discover there is no God?” However, Wanda agrees to drive her niece to the farm where the family had lived.
The film becomes a road trip. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiking musician headed for the same village. He is Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), an alto-saxophone player, who will introduce her to the music of John Coltrane.
In the village no one admits to knowing Ida’s parents, though they do know the Pole who took over their farm. He is not at home when the visitors arrive at the farm, and the wife is very uncomfortable at their presence. When they return at the time she has specified, her husband is back, and they learn that it was his father who had hidden the family. Probably worried about his title to the farm, he tries to brush them off. His anxious desire to retain title to the farm will eventually lead to Ida’s learning the bare minimum about the fate of her parents. Also, as we will see, the journey was almost as much about Wanda’s coming to terms with her sister’s fate as it is for Ida.
Pawel Pawlikowski, directing from a spare script written by himself and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, has created a masterful work that is a study in contrasts. Ida is simple, even naïve, and yet possesses artistic talent. We first see her touching up the painted face of a statue of Jesus, which she and other novices carry out and erect in the middle of the empty basin of a fountain in front of their nunnery. Her aunt is a brash woman accustomed to power in an atheistic political system. She smokes cigarettes most of the time, and drinks heavily. When Lis invites them to come to the club to hear him and his band, Wanda readily accepts, whereas Ida declines. When she thinks her niece is thinking less of her for dressing up to go out, she shows that she still knows something of the Bible that Ida is reading, “This Jesus of yours adored people like me.”
Later, after Wanda has come home from her night of dancing and drinking and falls asleep, Ida, still dressed in her novitiate’s habit, does go to the nightspot where the band is now alone jamming. She stands by a pillar soaking in the mellow music. Lis talks with her, laying the groundwork for an intimate encounter that will both deepen her understanding of life and confirm the decision she will make about her vocation. During a brief period when Ida takes off her headpiece and lets down her hair we see how physically beautiful she is. A Hollywood film would then have taken quite a different turn from that chosen by Pawel Pawlikowski. His choices in shaping the plot are what makes this film such a gem!
The decisions of the two women accentuate even more the contrast between Wanda and Ida. Wanda has enjoyed all the accouterments of power that an atheistic society can bestow upon her, but is that enough for a genuinely full life? She sarcastically says at one point, “I’m the slut and you’re the little saint.” Ida has indeed spent her brief years in simplicity of prayer and service. By the end of the film each of them will make the most important decision of their lives, a decision influenced greatly by their beliefs and values.
The filmmakers do not moralize at any point in the film, letting the camera and the wonderful performances by the cast show, rather than tell, the point of the film. The crisp black and white photography is perfect for this spiritual parable that, despite the title, is as much about the aunt as about the niece. Setting the story in the winter was also a good choice, the bleak snow-covered landscapes reinforcing the stark contrasts between the older and the younger woman. The handheld camera, through many close-ups, reveals much of the character of the women, Wanda’s beauty faded after a life of excessive smoking, drinking and sex; Ida’s soft features and expressive dark eyes revealing a spirituality alien to the aunt. At one point the latter remarks that Ida is just like her mother.
The film begins and closes with medium shots of Ida: the first of her painting the face of the statue of Christ, and the last of her walking along a road. Her destination is not overtly stated, but she still wears her habit. This is a fairly extended shot, allowing viewers plenty of time to reflect upon the difference between two roads chosen—and grateful for a film that, despite its brevity, offers more spiritual insight than any of the overstuffed blockbusters pouring into our theaters this summer. Look for it on Visual Parables’ Top Ten list next year. It is a film worth the effort of tracking it down, either at an art theater or, when available, on line.
The review with 9 discussion questions will be included in the July issue of Visual Parables. Go to the Visual Parables Store to see how to subscribe. Each issue has lots of materials for preaching & teaching.