A nun calls one of her novitiates into her office. The younger woman is on the verge of taking her vows. Her prioress tells her that she has an aunt in the city, the novitiate’s only living relative, and that before she becomes a nun, she must visit her. The younger woman looks down, subtly betraying her resistance. “Do I have to, Mother?” comes a strained voice. “Yes, you must.”
That is the lesson of Ida (2013), the fathomlessly beautiful movie by Paweł Pawlikowski, that reminds us of the necessary pain of leaving what we know in order to find out who we are or even if we want what we have. The novitiate in question is played by Agata Trzebuchowska with a sweet but serious face that looks like a baby’s swaddled around her ever-present habit. In mid-century Poland, she was orphaned to the convent when she was a baby, and she knows that meeting a relative means answering questions she’s not even interested in asking. When she comes face to face with her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), it is a terse family reunion. Wanda, completely unapologetic about her lack of interest in her niece (she had many opportunities to adopt her), is even less apologetic about giving those answers that her relative so clearly wants to avoid. The young Catholic nun is Jewish, her parents were killed during the war, and her name is Ida Lebenstein. Ida’s subtle reaction to this information that has shifted her entire life is devastating in its restraint. She meets Wanda’s flippant cruelty with the only thing she knows—demure silence.
Wanda, intrigued by Ida’s passing of her first test to drive her away, tries another. “Did they tell you what I do?” she asks. When Ida comes upon Wanda, she is in a state of undress with a man in her bed who does not appear to be her husband or even a very familiar presence. Years of watching movies has trained us to believe she is a prostitute. In fact, she is the local judge, a mouthpiece for the party who has a reputation as one of the cogs in the Stalinist regime. We quickly infer that this reflects more on her jaded opportunism than her politics, but it nevertheless puts Wanda at odds with Ida’s staunch Catholicism more than being a prostitute would. Still, Ida remains and her resilience convinces Wanda to reveal that she can help Ida find her desire, her parents’ grave.
The rest of the movie is spent watching Ida absorb blow after blow to her accepted view. She and her aunt (who, let’s not forget, is looking for the grave of her sister) meet the acquaintances of their departed family and find many who stood idly by when they had an opportunity to protect them. The two women form an uneasy bond as Wanda, remorseful that she made herself a success by being a servant of oppression, feeds her guilt with alcohol and strange men, and Ida silently observes. They meet a handsome musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) that stirs things in Ida that she wishes she could ignore. All the while she has to come to terms with the murder of her parents and the culture she was not only denied but also had fully replaced for her with another. The young girl who wanted nothing else but to be a nun has her faith and adherence to that plan tested time after time. As she discovers things about the world, she naturally discovers things about herself and that is the crux of the film. Her choice in the end, though it is satisfying, isn’t the point. Even the set-up for the choice is not the point. She, as we all do, must face who we are before we can become anything. This is a movie about growing up, about the inevitable tear between childhood and adulthood.
The specifics hardly matter. Yes, Pawlikowski and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz are adding intrigue by framing their story around Catholics and Jews, Communists and religion, the survivors who made impossible moral choices (often at the expense of others) and the people who were affected by those choices; but the story is universal. When we see Ida take off her habit and let down her auburn hair, her baby face becomes that of a woman, not simply because she removed the habit but because she accepted the choice to take it off. Her maturation has less to do with the outcome of the choice than with the recognition that one exists.
Its strange to see this movie so closely after seeing Rob Marshall’sInto the Woods (2014), which is based on source material that deals with the same subject. But where Marshall’s film fails to develop the metaphor, Pawlikowski’s completely understands, giving us an exquisite portrait of youth in revolt against the unstoppable march of self-awareness. When Little Red Riding Hood says, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not,” in Marshall’s film, it is meaningless words, a pleasant rhyme. Here the poignancy is almost unbearable, recalling scenes from our own personal movies that have nothing do with 1960s Poland.
Watch the way Pawlikowski frames his faces early in the movie. He gives them nothing but headroom, large canvases above their faces that remain blank and unrealized. As Ida grows, that space shrinks until in the final image of her she is framed straight-up, fully realized but with no where else to go. Our lead character doesn’t say much and in the end she’s in much the same spot as she was when we found her, but that’s because this is a movie about sea changes of the soul, revolution of the heart, that are so much more mesmerizing and important than all the computer-generated natural disasters, alien attacks and nuclear wars. This is a stunning movie in which not only a lot happens, but it is the stuff of real life.