It might be even possible that all the discussions about the film, or even the reason why it earned its Oscar, have totally missed the mark of the film’s aim.
This is because its real subject is much more perplexing than can immediately countenanced, since it goes against the most basic habits that form our everyday lives. Our lives are structured around busyness, around all the high and low voices, including debates about historical rights and wrongs, that so troubled the protagonist yesterday’s review of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist.
Yet, Ida‘s director, Pawel Pawlikowski has developed a steady line about the film that runs against these expectations. The post-Oscars on him finds Pawlikowski saying:
“It is strange to talking so much about it since it’s a film about silence,” Pawlikowski said at the Spirits.
He reiterated that point in his Oscar acceptance.
“We make a film about silence and withdrawing from the world and the need for contemplation – and here we are, at the epicentre of world noise and attention,” he said. “Fantastic – life is full of surprises.”
After taking a taste of all the cultural noise of the 1960’s, so limited by today’s standards–sexual liberation, jazz, booze, the possibility of family life, and rectifying historical evils–Ida decides the convent life has shelter to offer her she cannot find elsewhere.
She goes back.
The question of why anybody would need such shelter reveals how much we inhabit Pascal’s fear of the infinite silences and his claim that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Maggie Ross’s Silence: A User’s Guide offers some suggestions:
Through its twisted ideology and strategy [the self-conscious mind] tries to delude us that silence is to be avoided at any cost, even if that cost is the loss of our humanity; at some level it seems to be afraid that we might realize that the would-be emperor has no clothes on. To choose to live the fullness of our humanity is costly; but so is learning to swim or any new skill. In the cacophonous world we inhabit, the self-conscious mind would have us believe that it is much easier to yield to the noise and drown.
This temptation to surrender and drown to yield to the “whatever” attitude, is the wrong sort of letting go. Instead of setting us free, it opens us to exploitation by a consumer culture. It demands that we disbelieve any information that cannot be proven in the laboratory, stated in linear terms (preferably in buzz words or slogans), or sliced and diced into bits and bytes. It preaches scientism, a utilitarian, mechanistic, materialistic gospel of repetition, which is a distortion of true empirical knowledge. It locates the center from which we draw energy in the hamster cage of self-consciousness, a closed system infiltrated and compromised by those who control the media: hype is might.
Ross then continues in terms that bear directly upon the subject matter of Pawlikowski’s film:
We are urged to believe that frenetic activity (preferably shopping to the accompaniment of the canned caterwauling and thumping that passes for music, or participating in violent computer games, or being swamped in a cultural environment infused with orgiastic sexual images) leads to happiness.
Does this not give a much more subversive edge to Ida than the media hype around it? After tasting all of the temptations made available to her by her aunt Ida goes back to the convent.
I can understand the powerful, subversive, seemingly amoral, pull of silence because I feel it in my own life.
I also know that I am not the only person who feels its pull. I remember pretty much forcing a friend of mine to see Into the Great Silence with me.
She was reluctant at first. This just wasn’t her thing.
She finally went, but made uncomfortable jokes about the boring homosociability on the screen for the first twenty minutes. I regretted going to see the film together.
Then something suddenly changed. The movie pulled her in and the silence did its work. Afterwards she thanked me for giving her the opportunity to enter a new world.
Strange, I know.
For more on the topic of silence see my encounter with Martin Laird’s book on the topic.
Silence: A User’s Guide is published by Wipf and Stock. They are hitting some deep homers with the books they’ve published recently. Take a look at a list of their noteworthy recent Catholic theology titles.