Ida, a Polish film with English subtitles, has quietly been gaining attention as one of the must-see movies of the year, and has recently made the shortlist for Foreign Language Oscar.
The film takes place in the early 1960s in Poland. We meet a young novitiate nun, Anna, an orphan, raised in the convent. The Mother Superior summons her. Anna is told that her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda, has contacted them. This aunt refused to adopt her back when Anna first arrived at the convent. Now Anna is told to reach out to her, to find out about her blood family before taking her vows. Anna doesn’t want to do this, but is told she must.
Arriving at her aunt’s apartment, Anna is first treated brusquely. She is given minimal, and shocking, information: Anna is told she is Jewish, and that her real name is Ida. Then she’s sent away. For her own reasons, Wanda returns to Anna, and tentatively reaches out to her, interested, it seems, in sharing some familial connection. The family tragedy that defines their relationship is something neither knows how to address, but together, they will begin to face it.
Ida is full of silences. Anna, accustomed to the silence of the convent, keeps her thoughts internal. Wanda, more communicative, is a bleak character. Her face is extraordinarily expressive (the actress reminds me a little of Kirsten Scott Thomas), sorrowful, and complex. She, too, chooses her words carefully. A judge, she is used to sitting silently and hearing a case rather than holding forth (as, for example, a lawyer does in a courtroom scene we witness).
Subtitles, for those of you who fear them, are less disruptive than in many films, since there is so little dialogue. As with any foreign film, there are some cultural assumptions that can feel like a barrier to fully understanding Ida. It took me a while to understand that it was the 1960s; in an American (or British) film, I can immediately see the era in the clothing, hairstyles, cars, etc. But my cultural cues are off when trying the same trick with Poland. Additionally, the viewer would benefit from a decent understanding of what happened in Poland during and after World War II.
That said, I didn’t have a lot of that knowledge, and still loved the film, and understood what I was seeing. It requires an ability not to get bogged down in details (Exactly why did XYZ happen? Exactly what historical event was Wanda referring to when she said XYZ?). Anna and Wanda end up very interested in details, but it is clear from the direction and the script that those facts are for our characters, not for the audience. Often we see our characters in close-up, but all the way to the side of the frame, even partially obscured. The facts they learn push them off-center, disrupt their lives, wound and awaken them. It is this off-center-ness that the film is about, not the facts that create it.
Both women have ordered lives. Wanda, describing herself as a “slut” at one point early in the film, seems to be Anna’s opposite: A nun and a Jew, a girl and an older woman, a virgin and a slut. Yet both have strictly-defined lives that shield them from a harsh world, and their meeting unbalances them each. The film then observes them as each is thrown more and more off-balance, taking away more shielding while giving each more and more to deal with. Each tries to help the other: Wanda thinks becoming a nun amounts to Anna wasting her life, while Anna at one point suggests a priest is needed (Wanda says “You mean a rabbi”).
Ida deals with the ultimate aloneness of human beings: Anna and Wanda cannot save each other, and we can only watch to see if they can save themselves. It deals with faith, and whether faith can sustain in the face of tragedy. It deals with the idea of what “the real world” is. Is Anna’s chosen life a waste? In the end, we find more tragedy, and also, perhaps, more hope, than we had expected.