How can we bear the knowledge of the evil we have survived in life, or, perhaps, in which we have even participated?
There is one love that conquers and covers all, and that is the love of Christ. It cannot be replaced with the love of state, love of music, sexual love. How can you remain human in the shadow of great suffering, with the knowledge of human horror right in front of you, when faced with the limitlessness of human ability to do harm and mankind’s tendencies toward excess and evil? Or even just the more ordinary human uglinesses, sins, and temptations? By faith and love in something greater than yourself: Divine love. Faith in God, love of Christ, and moral seriousness. This is something Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida illustrates well with reserved yet powerful performances, sparse settings, a short runtime, and morally significant black-and-white cinematography.
Set in Poland in 1962, Ida is the story of a young woman, Anna, preparing to become a nun in the Catholic church. Orphaned as a baby during the German occupation of Poland in World War II and raised in a Catholic convent, Anna learns that one of her family members is alive: an aunt, Wanda, who has always known about Anna’s existence but has refused to ever enter her life. Shortly before Anna is to take her vows, her Mother Superior orders her to visit Wanda and stay “as long as is necessary.” This journey will uncover for Anna, and Wanda, terrible truths about the past and will present Anna with the choice among three lives: a life of service to God, a life of cynicism and carnal pursuit like the one her aunt has led, or a passive and enjoyable life of innocent self-fulfillment.
Ida is not a movie for everyone. It is a discreet, black-and-white, Polish, arthouse picture, and director Pawlikowski expects you to be aware of the totalitarian terrors of both the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet occupation. (If you want to learn more about these terrifying national catastrophes through art, I recommend you turn to Andrzej Wajda’s disturbing epic Katyn.) Pawlikowski also expects you to reconstruct for yourself most of the backstories of his conflicted, complex characters and in doing so gain more knowledge about the truths they represent than if he had explained everything.
However, even though Ida can be an inaccessible film, it is harshly beautiful and will affect some in a deep way as it affects me. Ida achieves something in its conciseness, starkness, and stylistic austerity that I sincerely hope I can come close to capturing in my own poetry some day, a true message laid bare and cold. Sure, there is something of Carl Th. Dreyer and Robert Bresson here, as people have pointed out, without a doubt, but Pawlikowski is not as obviously stylish as Dreyer and not as reliant on salvation and mystery as Bresson. Ida is no mere imitation.
Pawlikowski brings an intense historical context to this story that neither Dreyer nor Bresson could have done, the kind of context in some ways that those two filmmakers brought to their own stories. When we know Paweł’s own Polish background as a man struggling to understand his country’s history as well as the horrors his family experienced during Nazi and Soviet occupation, Ida’s contemplativeness seems more earned than if just any director had made the movie. This certainly makes Pawlikowski’s artistic choices less pretentious.
Like his spiritual ancestor Krzysztof Kieślowski before him, Pawlikowski turns to Poland, asks the hard questions about its incredibly troubled 20th century history, and draws insightful parallels to World War II, the Cold War, and contemporary European issues. This is a particular perspective in filmmaking that is rarely seen or sought (though there has been a rise of quality Polish filmmakers in the last several years), and so I am glad to see that perspective here.
Few countries have experienced the breadth of modern evil like Poland has in the 19th and 20th centuries, and yet the Polish people have always maintained an incredible ability to preserve their national memory, to rebound strongly from being actually wiped off the map multiple times, by telling their country’s stories. Yet too few Americans know about this. Paweł Pawlikowski is by no means the first filmmaker to tell Poland’s story through great art, but he is already among the best, and I consider Ida the best entry in Pawlikowski’s filmography thus far, as it does not contain the pulpy and melodramatic tendencies of his works like My Summer of Love and The Woman in the Fifth, nor does it contain the overwhelming nihilism found in, again, The Woman in the Fifth and his most recent movie, Cold War.
Along with Terrence Malick’s true story of martyrdom A Hidden Life and Martin Scorsese’s historical tragedy Silence, Ida is by far one of the best Christian films of the 2010s, both in its artfulness and in its seriousness.