Not to speak in “duh”-fashion, but it’s fascinating to look at the state of Catholicism today. Yes, there are still equal measures of scandal and devotion around the world, but there’s a very distinct shift toward openness and acknowledgement going on. Think about it. The Pope is cool with homosexuality, espousing zero-tolerance policies on sexual abuse, and possibly even sneaking out at night to help people in need. Catholicism seems to have re-defined, or rather re-contextualized, its notions of piety over the last 50 years.
Considering that sea change, Ida becomes riveting. Ida is a religious timestamp with morally complex machinations emerging within a tight-lipped, devout, and simpler period in recent history. This is a challenging, rewarding, and even moving meditation.
Set in 1962 Poland, this is the story of a young nun, the eponymous Ida (soft-skinned, graceful newcomer Agata Trzebuchowksa), who learns just days before her vows that she was born Jewish. Mind you, she finds this out knowing that Nazis murdered several million of her kind not even two decades earlier.
She’s in a place and time where people would rather bury all secrets, emotions, and social graces rather than explore beyond what they know. Denial is surely easier than acknowledgement of sin. At times, it’s much easier to forget than to forgive, let alone confront atrocity.
Yet despite this state of place and mind, Ida is pure. In a way she’s a clean slate for a new generation of Polish people. In other ways, she is the embodiment of deeply buried emotions and memories. Ultimately, Ida is calm, quiet, honest, curious, totally repressed, and divinely forgiving.
Ida convenes with her pugnacious, alcoholic, and damn near atheistic Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former prosecutor and judge who rose under a Stalinist regime. Wanda wants the young nun to know that she was born a Jew, named Anna Liebenstein. Maybe Wanda’s lonely. Maybe she wants to save Ida. Maybe Wanda wants forgiveness.
What’s only supposed to be a day trip turns in an odyssey for Wanda and Ida. It’s that kind of informational honesty that leads Ida to spend some extra time with Wanda to figure out who she might really be, where she comes from, and what her real history means in the face of her taking vows. The two women bond with each other, finding truths in each other’s shared histories that date back to Nazi occupation.
From there, Ida steers clear from homily, elegantly painting an alluring character portrait of two compelling women. This movie does feel like a sermon, despite its temptations and shocking revelations. It’s a naturalistic expression of two people coming together amidst realistic circumstances. It feels so very honest.
This is the kind of film that benefits from its own minor existence, with nothing but a pitch line about a nun’s secret being revealed in marketing. It’s a surprise thing of beauty that takes us to fascinating places.
The leads, Trzebuchowska and Kuleza, are perfect. First-time actress Agata Trzebuchowksa adorns Ida with a sensitive, innocent, and kind performance. We feel her confusion and curiosity, expressed with uncertain eyes and soft features. Wanda, on the other hand, is like a bed of nails thanks to Kuleza. She is a strong, fierce, independent woman amidst passive-aggressive subjugation towards women. The two create a dynamic that is truly compelling.
Pawel Pawlikowski directs with confidence and faith in his material, utilizing sumptuous, clear black-and-white photography that feels direct from 1962. Almost everything is shot from high angles, in 4:3 aspect ratios, giving us a tight, direct view of the proceedings, as if we’re peering in from the heavens.
At times, it’s impressive just how out of time Ida can feel. It’s like watching a movie right out of the decade it’s set in, like a Polish New Wave film or something, capable of making you forget this was made in 2013. It may sound silly, but Ida feels like a religious masterwork straight-lined from the 1960s, or ‘50s. It elicits the moral and allegorical implications of Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar. It has the feminine temptations and geographic imperatives of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. Ida shockingly even has the direct, loving eye of Roberto Rosellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis.
Yet, references aside, Ida is a modern miracle all its own. It’s a historical fable of sin and sacrifice. The movie seeks knowledge and experience, uncertain of what may come. In broad terms, this is road movie with a modest, but earnest sense of humor.
Ida is a tiny story with deep, true feelings, big revelations, and richly lived-in characterizations. What begins as one nun’s trip to visit family turns into a potentially world-altering affair, and it could not have been a better told story. Ida is a really great movie.