A wordless, monochrome world, a capacious warehouse, a room with one flaking, aging Jesus statue, and a woman at work painting the flesh on the Son of God welcome us to Ida, a film about a Catholic novice who works to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of her parents and her purpose at the convent she now serves.
The first scenes move slowly through space but quickly through time, and Ida, the Catholic novice, is introduced to her aunt, Wanda, with whom she has not yet had acquaintance due to unknown circumstances. Ida has traveled at the instruction of her Mother Superior, who requested she take as much time as needed before returning to the convent and taking her vows. The aunt asks the traveler, “They didn’t tell you who I am? What I do?” Wanda is hiding something heavy, but her brusque words and profound look suggest the burden that she carries must remain a backbreaking secret until the proper time.
On the road, they go from place to place, questioning and investigating, searching and wanting, asking about Jews who no longer live, though their absence is felt in the barren fields, harsh sunlight, stained glass, and tangled woods. Wanda was a state prosecutor who, in the 1950s, worked to convict “Enemies of the People,” and has now succumbed to alcoholism and depression: the last member of the family alive, save Ida. She says to a murderer on a hospital bed, “How did you do it? An ax?” She cries, because she left her sister and son alone with him, although barely acquainted, in order to fight a war without a clear enemy.
The climatic scenes tell us something primal. In the boundless reaches of nature, the payoff of colorless saturation is easily discerned: humanity and the more permanent geological structures have something in common. Both share spaces with killers and ghosts. The fields, woods, and skies are wailing about an absolute, doomed history—they have witnessed an irredeemable evil. These places have existed before Ida’s trusting, wide-eyed yet quickly vanishing ignorance, and their memories are manifested in the people that walk their paths and spread their ruins. Dead ones are eased in the ground, not to the tune of weeping, but to the sound of the abrasions of howling and gentle winds, rustling leaves, moist soot. This is weeping from the depths of existence. The season appears to be sometime in the fall, but existentially the crawl of time and the cold temperatures are like soul-snatching sorrows.
The film itself is a meditation on humanity’s relationship to the past, how it endures, creating and scarring the environments and spaces we choose to inhabit. With gray-scale gradations, it is clear the land and its structures have a heritage which might have been otherwise disguised behind bright or dull colors. Long, stationary shots and de-centered, low subjects allude to both the heights of cathedrals and the hope and doubt that constantly redraw lines of faith. The mood is convincingly solemn and pensive as a result. Director Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted a compelling message in technical form. These people are trying to find their way in a world of uncovered yet unspeakable truths and memories. The spirit of the holocaust looms within the empty spaces. Transitions between shots, consequently, are sharp and incisive, instantly showing the protrusions of a pre-existing world.
It’s also a careful work of exposition on the power of words. Listen to the people of Ida with their “God-bless-yous,” “God-be-with-yous,” and every other kind of cultural God-talk conceivable in this sparsely-populated religious land, and you’ll see the presence of God survives in the words of the people. Even so, like the Jews in post-Nazi Europe, God is nowhere in fact to be found. And like the divine, in the fleeting, whispered, and disdainful mentions by the Poles, the People of God are something like historical artifacts, and they have somehow vanished.
There is a sense in which people are begotten by attentiveness. The logos, as John identifies the Christ, is akin to this idea. For the Stoics, the logos was the organizing principle of the world, and when it’s interpreted in John 1:1 as “the Word,” it means something like “when truth shows up in speech,” or when the “truth of Being” appears. As we speak it, this truth organizes our worlds. In clinical psychology, it is said that when a conjured memory older than eighteen months old evokes some kind of visceral reaction, an unarticulated anxiety has power over you. This speaks to a truth that underlies all psychology: we somehow organize our lives, understand ourselves and others, by way of speech. And to rid yourself of the anxiety, you must talk about that memory, you must confront it to deal with it. This truth is not lost on Ida. It shows up in pictures. This is what the painting of the Son of God means: if we don’t take the care to respect the people we cross paths with, we are somehow diminished also. Paying homage to God by repainting a Jesus statue may seem superficial, but there’s an allegory in the ritual teaching people care for the body, and in caring for the body, one somehow cares for the soul. This merits serious reflection.
Ida is also about how people don’t have thoughts, but thoughts have people, and they control and contort. The fact that we have no words sometimes, that unburying the bones of one’s parents may make us weep or suicidal, make us wail or sit in stultifying silence, this is a fact of language and is expressed in language. The silence of Ida is as loud, if not more prominent, than the vocables. And the questions that are posed, with no answers in sight, are themselves independently meaningful of any search for answers, truth, or course of action that may or may not follow. It is these thoughts underlying everything—all that we think we are, want to be, think the world is, understand the divine by—that make us masters of time and fate.
That the plot of Ida is jarring and staccato is severely intentional. Scenes transition in forceful silences, sometimes to different locations or different times. Compare this to the routine, mechanized justification given by many Nazi soldiers and bureaucrats for their actions in the Holocaust: “I was just following orders. I was just doing my job.” The Catholic novice, representing all of us, is not carried by time as the accused and condemned are. Time is an enigma to her. The future is both mysterious and massive, requiring a push or pull to bring it to the present. Ida has to carry time with her, has to negotiate with it, forcing it to the present and standing wholly responsible for it. This is the essential contrast between Ida, the Catholic novice, and her aunt, the former state lawyer who prosecuted Nazis. There is a sense that the world doesn’t have to continue on as it has, even if the past endures in the present. For each new person born into the world brings an irreducible novelty with unpredictable consequences.
The disparities between Ida and Wanda are highly stylized in their clothing and language, in their habits of action, mannerisms, and attentiveness to momentary existence. The interplay between form and content make this movie memorable on a level deeper than mere descriptions can do. Watching Ida, with its understated musical score, sparse dialogue, quiet backgrounds, and suggestive imagery is an experience of deep and forceful subjectivity and awe, an experience not easily forgotten as the people on the screen disappear.