Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013, Poland)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite masterwork Ida belongs within an entirely unique category of film. Its thoughtful ambiguity, its restraint and detached yet careful observation makes easy comparisons with the great cinematic auteurs of the 1960s. Even its undemonstrative black and white cinematography with its delicate palette of grays adds to this allure. Add to these two brilliant nuanced performances by its two female leads and it’s obvious why Ida has been garnering awards and critical praise in film festivals and publications throughout the world including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Much of the critical discussion of Ida has centered on how the film deals with a unique period in Polish history. It raises questions about the relationship between the Polish government and Jewish citizens during the Second World War. It also explores the Stalinist years following World War II as well as the early 1960s when society and culture in Poland began to change incrementally. This last period is where the film’s narrative takes place. The other periods hover just below the surface as the characters deal with their complicated pasts.
The two pasts in question are that of a young orphaned religious novice named Ida and her Aunt Wanda, a state prosecutor in the communist regime. Ida, on the eve of taking her religious vows, is summoned by her Mother Superior for a private conversation. The convent has finally received contact from Ida’s only living relative (Wanda) and the Mother Superior would like Ida to have the chance to meet her and find out about her past before making a life-long commitment to religious life. When Ida meets the confident and abrasive Wanda, it’s with some shock that she finds out, not only that she is Jewish, but that her whole family was killed during the war. Thus the two embark on a solemn journey of discovery to ascertain the circumstances of the death of their family.
Numerous other reviewers have written compellingly about the political and historical dimensions of the film. What is perhaps just as interesting for Catholic readers is how thoughtfully the character of Ida is portrayed. First, religious life and faith are foundational to who she is. This is witnessed in scenes of her praying at shrines and moments spent contemplating her future. Indeed, her perseverance in wearing her religious habit in differing circumstances attests to her values. And the basic premise of the film underscores the freedom, integrity, and dignity afforded to Ida in her choice of vocation.
This is a question she takes up with great care. It is a testament to the film’s artistry that words don’t have to be spoken for the viewer to know how she is grappling with the question of her future. And while the film’s ending is ambiguous and open to varying interpretations, there’s nothing there that I can find to question the persistence of her faith. Whatever vocation Ida might find, her faith is there to support her.
And isn’t that the real meaning of discernment? Indeed, Ida could be considered perhaps one of the most thoughtful of discernment films, because it is her whole life that she is lead to consider, past, present, and future. It is not without, sin, struggle, self-discovery, and trial. And it takes place in a tumultuous period of history. But it is most certainly not taken lightly. And so we find ourselves pulling for Ida, that she may discover her own path in life and find peace. Isn’t that what lies at the heart of true discernment?