Pawlikowski once said that “Ida doesn’t set out to explain history. That’s not what it’s about. The story is focused on very concrete and complex characters who are full of humanity with all its paradoxes. They’re not pawns used to illustrate some version of history or an ideology.” I find this to be immensely important. Most films and works of art which deal with the communist era and its crimes, and World War II era and crimes perpetrated against Jews as their subject, tend to illustrate a moral view or take an explicit ideological stance. Pawlikowski’s brave approach shows all the paradoxes of humanity, as he says himself, and condenses them into a film an hour and twenty minutes long.
Carnal love and chastity. Being the perpetrator of murders (state-sanctioned) and the one who unmasks them. Restraint and sensuality. Strictness and care, and so on. All of these paradoxes are embodied in the one of the two main characters, Ida, a young nun who is about to take her vows and her aunt Wanda. Ida is commanded by a nun in the convent to meet her aunt before she takes her vows. After meeting her, they set on a path to discover the remains of Ida’s family, who were Jews murdered during the Second World War.
The film is spartan in the presentation of the events and their elaboration, the characters’ stance is stoic and they are rarely emotional. One critic wrote the following words about the film: “Frame by frame, Ida look resplendently bleak, its stunning monochromes combining with the inevitable gloomy Polish weather and communist-era deprivations to create a harsh, unforgiving environment.” Ida’s aunt Wanda is an alcoholic who identifies herself with Mary Magdalene (to provoke her niece since she is about to become a nun); earlier in her life, during the 50’s, as she says, she worked as a state prosecutor and sent some people to their deaths. Yet, when Ida leaves the convent to uncover the truth about their family’s burial ground, she confronts the man for whom she believes to have murdered Ida’s mother and father, and stops at nothing to find their remains.
The ultimate paradox is revealed, a moral conundrum which makes us speechless. Someone responsible for murders confronts another person who is responsible for murders as well. Wanda worked for the communist regime and sent people to their deaths, while the murderers of Ida’s family did so personally. Morally speaking, there is no great difference. Pawlikowski once said: “One of my favourite writers is Chekhov. I love his attitude toward the world. Just accept things for what they are. Don’t judge. Be moral as you tell your story, but have no moral in the end. Just look at it.” When murder of the innocents is in question, this is hard, yet even with this kind of crime, Pawlikowski manages to look at it calmly and directly, and ultimately portray forgiveness.
The portrayal of forgiveness, and some of the most important events in the film, are actually not shown on the screen. We see silent characters who perform certain acts – the most memorable one is Ida’s taking her veil off hear head, and at this moment when we see her femininity and sensuality for the first time – or have ceased talking about a certain subject, and the scene is cut. We can suppose that there are things to be said, acts to be done, but this kind of editing is extremely powerful since it elucidates the fact that in life, many things are left unsaid, many acts undone and the only thing that can be done is to continue living. The subtext of this silence and abrupted acts speaks more than many words that could be said on the subject; silence and restraint are one of the main characters in the movie, and this is fitting since the main character is a nun-to-be.
Wanda speaks of the stained glass window Ida’s mother created and put in a barn next to the cows, so they could be happier. I see it as a wonderful metaphor for seeking simplicity in regard to beauty; it is as if the stage of this world, abundant in filth and ugliness, is like this barn, and next to this stage is beauty we can perceive, which makes living both delightful and bearable. A young saxophonist, who plays at a town celebration, is interested in Ida and tells her that she doesn’t know what kind of effect she has on men. Ida was raised in a convent, in a strict and austere environment, and Pawlikowski convincingly shows her reluctance to take part in the affairs of this world, and her innocence in regard to it, since she knows little of it. When Wanda and Ida finally find an improvised grave of her father, mother and little brother she never knew she had, we can observe her silence, and lack of response, but it is implicitly told that Ida managed to forgive.
Soon after the finding of her sister’s grave, Wanda commits suicide by throwing herself through the window. In a particularly memorable scene, Ida replaces her robe with a dress, the symbol of her identity as a nun, smokes a cigarette and drinks alcohol. In this way, by accepting Wanda’s lifestyle and clothes for a moment, she cherishes her memory. She sleeps with the young saxophonist and he asks her to come with him and travel to another town near the sea, and later they will get married. Ida responds with silence, and soon, in the next shot, she is wearing nun’s robes and regains her former identity.
Another paradox takes places, a woman devoted to religion as a nun-to-be embraces carnal love, only to regain her former identity and chastity in a short time. Pawlikowski masterfully toys with paradoxes, and shows us that in each of us there is good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and that the contingency of historical events makes some of us victims and some of us perpetrators of crimes. His humanistic vision of personal destinies shows us that humans are complex beings, whose acts need to be understood, atoned for and in the end, forgiven.