Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Stars: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Ida sinks us into a deeply personal, intimate space where shades of grey and white illuminate a blackened reality. A girl’s tender present is invaded by a dark past. Perhaps the human psyche stretches across a great divide of ordinariness, anchored by extremes of joy and evil. Joy seeks inklings of light. Evil lurks in dark acts of desperate paranoia. Why else the satisfaction of toggling a painful tooth, sobbing uncontrollably or wandering empty streets at night, fearful but excited to be in a foreign city? Why else the pleasure of the film Ida in which a girl, by chance, grasps the idiocy and the miracle of her life saved only to become someone she was never meant to be.
Ida’s story is rather simple and probably more ordinary than any of us want to believe. In post WWII Poland, a girl on the verge of taking vows to become a nun discovers she’s Jewish. Ida was placed on the steps of the convent as an infant at the same moment her parents were being killed by a Catholic family who had first sheltered them and then killed them. They narrowly avoided being killed themselves by the Germans. She discovers her history by visiting her Aunt Wanda before taking the vows that will wed her to the church forever. Wanda, her mother’s sister, knew of Ida’s existence in the Catholic orphanage but refused to claim her. Somehow, in spite of being Jewish, Wanda has risen in Poland’s government to be a judge and, initially, that seems to be her reason for ignoring Ida.
Ida has her mind set on finding the graves of her parents and Wanda reluctantly agrees to help her. The two women make the journey together, uncovering a secret that darkens an already dark story. The aunt reveals to Ida that she left behind her young son with her sister Roza, Ida’s mother, for safekeeping during the war so that she could join the resistance. Wanda fears the remains in hidden graves will contain more than the bones of Ida’s parents.
Ida, cloaked in the plain scarf and cloth coat of a novice nun meets her Aunt Wanda in a Polish city bereft of bustle, foretelling scenes too empty and too loaded in the woods behind the house where the Ida’s parents lived. Wanda, already a woman who drinks too much, tosses down shot glasses of vodka and drives her car into a ditch. She spends a night in jail before they arrive at the shack where their family once lived. A dirt-poor Polish farmer with a wife and a child of his own lives there now. At first, he withholds answers to their quest.
The bleak plight of all involved is directly felt through imagistically powerful black and white cinematography. Matter of fact images of aunt and niece carrying bones so recently dug up from a muddy ditch and rolled in blankets for transport to a Jewish cemetery proceed in poetic slowness, step by step without an ounce of color. To see the family bones carried so personally, bundled and carried close to the body from profane to sacred ground is unnerving, barely bearable.
Ida stirs our imagination, creating recollections of events never lived, empathy for those now dead and others who survived. Memories are fantasized as if recalled. The aunt in this film clearly shunned the niece who would force her to emotionally relive what she’d left behind in order to adapt, accept and join a society in which she achieved prominence by not being herself. Once Ida bears witness to her choice, the Wanda’s wall between past and present weakens and another story begins once the women return home.
We have to ask. What will Ida do?
Ida, in accompanying Wanda in the search for her parent’s grave, engages life experiences that require her constantly to make her own choices, not simply follow rules of a convent. When a young man hitches a ride with them to get into the city, she meets a man who lives on the edge of what’s coming in modern society. He plays the saxophone, a musical instrument called masculine and sensual by the aunt. He has a gig to celebrate a Polish holiday and draws Ida into feelings she didn’t know she had. Same age as Ida but without her history, his love is innocent. He represents a present in which the evolution of time has tamped down horror and new opportunities are emerging.
What will Ida choose?
The two women, bonded by blood but one old and one young, walk toward different futures. As surely as Ida progresses toward an awakening, Wanda spirals downward into a past with no recoup. Ida tries on her aunt’s shoes, wears her clothes, drinks her vodka and sleeps with the saxophone player. A window of light will prove an exit for one, an entry for the other. But no escape into the expansive divide of ordinary life lies ahead for either.
Ida is a tight film, intimate and deep in revealing what happened, what’s happening after the war in Poland and what needs to happen to maintain faith in humanity in an aftermath of shadows. It is a film of beautiful images that evoke the mythic gamble of any individual’s circumstances of birth. True identity of some, like Ida, is partially given, partially created, and forever partially unknown.
Opposites of joy and evil clashed in WWII, wreaking tragedy and leaving a legacy of unconscionable grief. And Ida is left to choose life as she sees fit. That’s a choice her parents never had. Yet the film ends with questions. Is Ida reconstituted? Is hers a free choice or driven by a loss of faith in the rational mind of humankind?