The White Lily Blog

Ida Chooses Love
August 29, 2019, 8:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


The film Ida, directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski, was released in 2014 to huge critical acclaim. Shot in black and white under an austere Polish sky, the young novice Anna is sent out by the superior of her convent to visit her aunt Wanda before taking the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Mother Superior hints that she will learn things that are important to her, and she should take as long as is necessary to learn them. The aunt subsequently reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida, that she is Jewish, that Ida’s mother was Wanda’s beloved sister and her father a man that Wanda disliked, and that they both were murdered during the war.

The two women embark on a journey to find out how Ida’s parents died and where they are buried. On the way to interview one resident of the town in which they had lived, they pick up a hitch-hiking young jazz saxophonist who becomes enamored with Ida.

Wanda, who had been a high-ranking communist official but is now a disenchanted, hard-faced has-been, drinks a lot and sleeps around, and tells Ida she’d take her vows with more sincerity if she knew what she were ‘missing.’

Ida is devout, however. We see her pray several times on the journey while her aunt stands watching and chain-smoking. They finally get the information they sought, find the killing ground, and unearth and bring their family’s bones to an overgrown Jewish cemetery and bury them. Then Ida returns to her convent (where she tells the Mother Superior that she is ‘not ready’ to take her vows and watches her companions in the novitiate go through the ceremony), and Wanda goes home to take a long hot bath and a shocking sudden dive out of the wide windows of her walk-up flat. Ida again leaves her convent and returns to Wanda’s place for the funeral.

The evening after the funeral for the first time she removes her novice’s habit, as Wanda had wanted, frees her beautiful hair from its nun’s chaste covering, puts on a provocative dress of her aunt’s and begins to drink heavily and dance about. The saxophonist comes over. They have sex which appears to be satisfying to both, he invites her to come with him on the band tour. She asks what they will do. He says, ‘Oh, we’ll buy a dog. And later we’ll buy a house, and have kids.’ ‘Is that what we’ll do?’ she wonders. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘That’s life.’

And what she does next is surprising. What she does next the critics don’t discuss. They focus on so many other aspects of the film. They either don’t mention the ending, or ignore its message. Let me explain.

One reviewer calls the movie ‘a horror film,’ but filled with ‘hope’ because of the groovy American jazz played by the saxophonist and his band, and presumably by Ida’s relinquishment of religious life and newly awakened sexual self.

Godfrey Cheshire, reviewing when the film was first released in 2014, writes,  “‘Ida’ adds something to a subject that sometimes seems to have lost the ability to disturb us as it should in movies.” He is speaking of the gruesome things that Jews suffered during World War II, and the film does briefly but brutally reveal the wartime lives and deaths Ida’s family members, betrayed by the Polish family who had taken their farm and then initially fed and finally murdered them. Cheshire goes on to discuss the film as a history lesson about “the darkest and most troubling chapter in modern Poland’s history” and links it to Cambodia and Rwanda and how one’s neighbors and friends could become the authors of one’s destruction, how terrible that is. As if that were the point of the film. But Chesire’s analysis leaves out the ending. meaning it’s not up to standard.

Peter Bradshaw, also writing in 2014, continues in the same vein. The film is a “road trip” in which a girl loses her innocence, and the main point of the film being for Bradshaw the complicated relationship between the girl and her boozy leftist aunt. Many reviewers revel in the character of the aunt as played by Polish actress Agata Kulesza; Dana Stevens writes Wanda-Agata is “as fascinating to spend time with as she is bottomlessly sad” (although viewers with real alcoholic ex-hippy aunts might describe the type differently).

Then there are the critics who protested the portrayal of Polish citizens during the war years as collaborators with Germans in the holocaust. For them, the film is a scandal that provoked a letter of protest by the Polish Anti-Defamation League to the Polish Film Institute, demanding that cards be distributed that stated the fact that thousands of Polish individuals had been imprisoned or killed by Nazi forces for helping Jews hide.

But Ida doesn’t relinquish her vocation. Ida’s relationship with her aunt is not equal; younger, shy, quiet, she is the superior, she is the stronger, she is the consoler–in several scenes she achieves superiority simply because she is sober, in other scenes because she has something the aunt has not, something inside. Ida neither commits suicide nor becomes a communist.  The authors of this script clearly intend her to be the dominant character and the aunt, whatever her reckless charm, the loser. Ida quietly maintains. The horror of what happened to her family does not turn her from her Faith into an observant Jew, nor does libertine American jazz turn her into a secularist. What does she choose, then? It is revealed by the ending the critics skip.

She follows her aunt’s advice, yes, and that fooled the critics. The evening of the funeral she does exactly what her aunt recommended, she (foolishly) tries out the life of sin (as foolishly as most of us). She drinks it, sin, straight out of the bottle. She lets her hair down and admires her physical (and fleeting) beauty. She dances with a good looking man, and she lies down with him. She quietly asks him the exactly right question in response to his proposal that they enter a version of what unbelievers call marriage: is that what we will do? that is, is that all? And he gives her the secularist’s (the American, the “free”) answer: Yes, that’s life, you see.  That’s all there is, a dog, a house, a couple of kids, and me and my saxophone.

Then we watch her in the morning after. She is getting dressed. We watched her go through her “loss of innocence,” as the critics said, and we expect this film to end as so many of its kind do, with her embarking on her brave new life of “freedom” (such films, that never show the ending of those free lives). Instead, she puts back on her novice’s habit, and she leaves, but not before inviting him to the ceremony in which she will take her vows (which he declines, observing that he intends to live avoiding vows).

And then she takes that long walk back to her convent. The sustained walk in darkness along a roadside illuminated by cars and motorcycles all going the opposite direction, the walk the critics ignore.

We know what she is going toward. This film has portrayed religious life without a shred of romanticism. We have seen their meals and the monotony of their clanking, clicking spoons in the soup bowls at dinner. We see their simple work and their kind but not saccharine Reverend Mother. We see the reverence with which the the novices clean and adorn the statue of Jesus, the one revealing His Sacred Heart so full of love for suffering mankind. We see the novices stretched out on the floor as if dead in the moments before they take their vows, wearing the crowns that in the somber black and white of the film look not like garlands of flowers (which nuns do indeed wear on the day they take their vows and marry Christ) but like the crown of thorns that nuns willingly accept to expiate their own sins and ours. Nuns die to the world to live a fuller life of grace, and to live in the presence of God in heaven. They die to the world but do not commit suicide. They die to the world but seek a fuller, richer life for it, a greater life than the banal tomb of physicality offered by the secular. The unaltered faces of the nuns in full habit reveal all this, not adorned, not softened, but alive and human, and strong. These are not accidents. This is what the film intends to show, and what the secular critics miss.

Ida walks toward that. She walks more quickly than we have seen in all the rest of the scenes. She is thinking hard, the lights of the passing cars reveals her little triangular face with its dimpled chin and her searching eyes, so full of intelligence and love. She is resolved now. She will take her vows. She chooses real life, richer than all she saw and experienced on her journey. She did not lose her innocence. She found it.

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