A scene during the opening minutes of a new film, Ida, by Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski, shows a nun lovingly and patiently cleaning and restoring a painted statue depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and then a small group of nuns carrying the statue to reposition it in its place outside of their convent.1 We can readily see why such care must be given to this statue: it stands exposed to the harsh elements as snow falls upon the group in the twilight. We soon learn as the film unfolds that such harshness is atmospheric, conveying the sense of a deeply troubled place and time: this is Poland in 1962, still suffering from the Second World War and the Holocaust and now in the grip of Soviet-era oppression. Although the film does not place a strong focus on the Sacred Heart image, that image can be recognized in retrospect as emblematic of the theme of the characters and the world they inhabit are in need of healing, and the film dares to show that as profound evil is excavated and exposed, faith and divine love offer a redemptive power, even if that power is not accepted and embraced by all. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is traditionally associated with the theme of reparation in Catholicism, and the film makes us aware [End Page 5] that this convent is located in a country marked grievously by the burden of sin.
The trajectory of the film reaches quickly beyond the convent. Anna is the name of the young woman shown attending to the statue, and she is a novice in the order. Her Mother Superior informs Anna that before she will be permitted to take her vows, she must leave the convent and visit her only surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda, whose existence is revealed to her for the first time in this conversation. Anna travels alone to the gray city and finds her aunt at home in her apartment. Within minutes of an ungracious welcome, Anna is told by Wanda that she is a Jew named Ida and that her parents were killed during the war. Her aunt seems to sneer at the novice’s habit while telling her, “You’re a Jewish nun.”
The suffering of this time and place is refracted through these two women upon whom the film focuses intimately: one who is only now at the age of eighteen beginning to discover the terrible conditions into which she has been born and which she has somehow survived, and the other who about eighteen years earlier had left her own young son with her sister (Ida’s mother) and her sister’s husband, desperately entrusting this Jewish family and their farm to the care of a Christian farmer and his family during World War II. Wanda had joined the Polish resistance, survived the war, and became a powerful prosecutor for the Polish government in the years during which the Communist regime consolidated its power. She was responsible for the execution of “enemies of the state” before losing influence, probably due to her alcoholism. Until now, Wanda has resolutely turned away from facing the suffering of her past, having made no effort to contact her only niece and no effort to learn how her child and sister and brother-in-law had been killed. She tries to dismiss Anna now as well, only to relent and soften with no pleading from Anna as she agrees to join her niece on a journey of discovery into the sins of the past.
Wanda, then, is at the opposite extreme to the innocence of [End Page 6] Anna. Wanda is weighed down both by crimes committed against her and her family as Jews and by her own crimes of accommodation with the regime in power after the war—she is both burdened and damaged.
This film, remarkably, brings to display the spiritual dimension of sin, suffering, and healing that underlies the vast political, sociological, and historical network of causes that devastated this part of the world during the twentieth century. Every stylistic choice made by Pawlikowski serves the artistic function of shifting our...