Ida is the kind of movie Catholics say is never made anymore. Beautifully shot, subtle, mature in its view of spirituality, and fair to the Catholic Church, it’s worth seeking out on the arts circuit.
Ida is directed by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. Shot in black and white, it tells the story of Ida Lebenstein, an 18 year-old Polish nun in 1962 who is on the verge of taking her vows. Adopted by a convent when she was an infant, Ida discovers that she is Jewish and that her parents were killed during World War II.
Ida, played beautifully by Agata Trzebuchowska, is given permission to leave the convent for a brief time to visit her only remaining relative, and aunt named Wanda Cruz. Wanda was once a powerful judge for the Communist show trials after World War II. While still feared, she has sunken unto alcoholism and sexually aggressive behavior. Together, the two women search for the place where Ida’s parents are buried, and, if possible, of finding the actual killer.
It needs to be emphasized that Ida is not an American movie — and that is a very good thing. There is very little music. The actors are naturalistic and understated. They don’t scream. There are no explosions. Images are used effectively to convey ideas and relations of power, and director Pawlikowski trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to get the cues. An obvious reference point is Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson’s 1951 somber black and white masterpiece.
Ida doesn’t achieve the power of Priest, but it is stylistically and thematically similar. Both films also used amateur or unknown actors, and in both cases it works dramatically well. In Ida, Agata Kulesza is especially brilliant as the dissolute apparatchik Wanda. In her alcoholism and self-loathing she embodies the rot at the core of communism, while at the same time making the audience pity her. In her career “dispensing the people’s justice” she put away a lot if dissidents, but was not able to kill her own conscience. The only thing left is to try and smother it with vodka.
Agata Trzebuch is wonderful as Ida. She has soft, empathetic eyes and gentle body language, but rises powerfully to challenge Wanda when Wanda drunkenly attempts to mock the Bible. Trzebuch’s best scenes come late in the film, when Ida encounters, and becomes attracted to, a jazz musician. This musician, who is unnamed but played by Dawid Ogrodnik, offers Ida a chance for a family, house, and, “You know,” he says, “a life.” The scene where he teaches Ida to slow dance after hours in a jazz club is one of the most beautiful in the film.
As happens throughout the film, director Pawlikowski doesn’t use a lot of quick cuts or multiple angles. He prefers to let the drama unfold naturally in a single still, well composed shot. It’s an artful way of shooting that American directors have forgotten.
A lot of reviewers may interpret Ida as a choice between the sacred and secular worlds, as well as an indictment of totalitarianism, whether it be fascist or Communist. I saw it a bit differently. One of the things that first appealed to Ida about the jazz musician was his version of “Naima,” the gorgeous and deeply spiritual ballad by John Coltrane. It’s the first time in the film that Ida says she likes something “very much.” John Coltrane was a questing musician who recorded an entire album, A Love Supreme, as a journey to, and prayer in praise of, God. What is offered in Ida are two different versions of the spiritual. The jazz musician is offering Ida marriage, a home, a life. He never suggests that they just hang out. He wants a life together.
I won’t give away the ending of Ida, especially since it leaves enough room for more than one interpretation. I’ll just say that for Catholics who complain about the aggressive secularism of the media, of the hollowness of Hollywood, of how no one makes adult films about religion anymore, you owe it to yourselves to see this film. It’s moving piece of art that deserves a wider audience.
Mark Judge, a journalist and filmmaker, is the author of Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship and A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.