Ida Packs Guilt, Pain and Faith Into 80 Minutes

Review of Ida, Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Ida has no time to waste. The first 10 minutes of its 80-minute running time lay out the key elements of its story and establish its two main characters. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun in training in the early 1960s at a Poland convent when she’s ordered to visit her only living relative. Her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), whom Ida has never met, greets her at the door to her home, invites her in and quickly explains to Anna that her real name is Ida and that her deceased parents were Jewish. That means Ida is Jewish, too.

The hard-bitten Wanda is nothing if not blunt. A judge and former communist, she didn’t claim Ida from an orphanage after Wanda’s parents died because, she coldly informs Ida, “I didn’t want to.” She’s more interested in one-night stands and a steady supply of alcohol. She’s also hostile toward Ida’s devotion to Christ, believing Ida’s faith has never been truly tested.

“Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes—about carnal love?” Wanda asks Ida. As to the latter, Wanda encourages Ida to “try it sometimes,” because “otherwise, what good are those values?” The duo set out to locate the burial plot of Ida’s parents, a journey that leads the wide-eyed, innocent Anna into the dark places of Polish history.

Wanda is determined to expose the “good Christians,” as she derisively calls them, who were complicit in the deaths of Ida’s parents, but she’s also a lonely soul who uses sex and alcohol to deal with a self-inflicted legacy of pain and guilt. “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint,” Wanda tells Ida, but adds, “This Jesus of yours adored people like me.”

Throughout the film, Ida says little, but behind her wide eyes we can see doubt creeping in. Is she prepared for life in a convent? What does the revelation of her heritage mean to her life now? How can she reconcile her love of Christ with the stirrings she feels toward a musician she meets through Wanda?

Ida is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and shot in serene black and white by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, with characters and crucial visual information often placed low in the 1.37:1 frame. Visually, Ida is beautifully composed and never less than a pleasure to watch.

Thematically, the film is not as fully developed as it might have been—it doesn’t answer every question viewers might have about Wanda’s past, or more particularly, about Ida’s present. We also don’t see much of Ida’s devotional life beyond a few shots of convent life. The implication by Wanda that Ida’s Jewish heritage contradicts her Christian devotion is never verbally challenged. Nor does Ida offer any understanding of a life of faith outside the convent, which makes Ida’s inner wrestling with whether or not to ultimately return to the convent less gripping than it might have been.

So, Ida could frustrate viewers looking for more balance in its characters’ view of faith, or those who prefer all loose ends be tied up. Those interested in a view of life and faith that is more interested in raising questions than providing answers will find Ida provocative, not to mention impeccably assembled and acted.

Religious dramas of the caliber of Ida don’t come along often. Ida is very good, if far from perfect—the type of film we need more of, even if it’s 80-minute running time may present a rare instance of a film being a little too short for its own good.

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