“What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”
‘Ida’, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski in 2013, is a Polish drama set in 1962. Agata Kulesza plays Anna, a novice nun who has grown up in the convent. When she comes of age, the prioress tells her she must leave to find out more about her past. She is sent to her aunt, a worldly alcoholic judge played by Agata Trzebuchowska who tells her that she is really Jewish and her name is Ida Lebenstein. Ida’s hunt for information about what happened to her parents during the Second World War becomes merged by her growing attraction towards a saxophone player, and by her aunt’s discovery of the fate of her child. It’s a dark, brooding film, shot Bergman-like in black and white but also clearly influenced by the stark obsession with faces displayed by Dreyer in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’. The simplicity of the movie and the lack of emotive direction, the Robert Bresson-esque buttoned-down performances and the absence of diegetic music, makes the story stand out and makes it all the more poignant. It’s a film that manages to say much about three periods of Polish history: the modern day, the Communist People’s Republic of the 1960s and the German occupation during the 1940s. Pawlikowski draws a line of sadness and tragedy joining each time period together and demonstrating a micro-historical legacy of the Holocaust. The performance by Agata Kulesza and the contrasting, more heightened performance by Agata Trzebuchowska creates a tension that drives the narrative onwards, though you never get the sense that this is telling the story of the fight for Ida’s soul, rather it is the story of her discovery and, possibly, her acceptance of the past and the power of her faith to bring her back to the convent.
Would I recommend it? Yes – but don’t watch it just before watching Pedro Almodóvar’s 1983 ‘Dark Habits’, a film I’m reviewing for another website. The contrast between the austere and dignified depiction of convent life in Pawlikowski and the drug-addled nuns in Almodóvar’s movie is somewhat jarring. I’d watch in a double bill with ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, mainly because it’s a great film.