Ida is a very good movie, but I think that the reason why it's not getting talked about a ton is pretty simple: this is not the kind of movie that tends to be wildly popular. It's in black and white. It's in Polish with subtitles. It's very quiet. It's emotionally powerful in a way that can leaving you feeling drained after watching it. It's fairly bleak for American sensibilities.
I'm going to take the approach of writing this review without spoilers other than what you learn in the trailer and the first five minutes or so of the movie. This is a movie in which the way you learn things is often as important as what you learn, so I think it's important not to blow key elements ahead of time. (Normally I have no issue with spoilers.) If you're going to discuss later plot revelations in the comments, please prominently label your comment as such so those who haven't seen the film can make their decision as to whether to read.
In the opening moments of the movie, we meet Anna, a young woman preparing to take her final vows as a nun. She was raised in an orphanage run by the sisters, but her superior tells her that she has a living relative, an aunt named Wanda. Before she takes her final vows, she is told, she should go and meet her aunt. Anna has reservations about going to meet a relative who apparently refused to take her in when she was orphaned, but her superior insists, so she goes. Her first meeting with Wanda does not reassure: she arrives, after a long journey, in the morning, and Wanda is seeing out a man who has clearly spent the night with her.
Wanda immediately drops the revelation which kicks off the rest of the action in the movie: Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish. Given that this is taking place in the mid 60's, this means that Anna was orphaned during World War II. The mis-matched aunt and niece set off together to find out what happened to Anna's parents.
The movie is beautifully filmed in black and white, the gray pallet adding to the bleak feeling of the film. It's set in winter. The 1960s Poland being depicted is clearly still very poor, living under communism. And the family history which the two women are confronting is similarly bleak.
The other startling thing about this film is how much of a movie it is. It is almost entirely visual. The beautiful young novice is not a big talker, and she's moving into territory that people don't like to talk about. There's no sound track other than when the characters themselves listen to music. I haven't seen a movie which makes such powerful use of silence since the (very different) movie Into Great Silence, a documentary about Carthusian monks living under a vow of silence. The narrative style is one which is utterly "show don't tell". We never know what Anna is thinking. There's something fairly isolating about the style, and that fits the story in which these two women are so much at odds with each other, and are confronting people who very much do not want to think about the stories they are trying to learn.
At root, the movie is about trama -- about how people and cultures deal with events seemingly too horrible to deal with. This is the sort of thing which we, as Americans, don't deal with much in our art or in our culture. A friend of mine who is a professor specializing in 20th century Central European history likes to describe the movie Schindler's List as a feel-good, American movie about the Holocaust. There's something to this. It's a movie which works on a broad canvas and although it's dealing with some of the darker periods of European history, at root it makes those bearable by picking a story which has a happy ending. The biggest American movie about an event in which millions of Jews died, is a story about Jews who didn't die.
Ida is a much smaller movie. It's not a movie about massive prison camps, about sweeping historical events. It deals with less than a dozen characters, and their history in a dark time when people did evil things. It deals with how people lived with the knowledge of those actions, their sins and the sins committed against them. One of the first things that Wanda tells her niece is that she works for the communist regime. She ran show trials during the Stalinist era. She had people killed. In the logic of the Nazi-occupied world she was thrust into, you can see why she did. And yet she too seems clearly broken by both what's been done to her and what she's done. As the movie continues we learn just how broken.
The main character herself is, due to being such a quiet character, a somewhat enigmatic presence. You want to pour into this beautiful young novice what you think "a good person" would do in this situation, and there were moments when I found myself rebelling: Would she do that? Would a character like this do that?
But at almost no moment in the film do we know what thoughts and doubts are going through her mind. We watch, and at some level we desperately want to pull her close and make things better, and yet we cannot because we are only watching.
The post which pushed me to finally review this movie demands to know why people aren't talking about this as Catholic art. As I said, part of it is just that this is not a mass-appeal movie. But it's also not a "faith movie" in the niche sense. It's a movie about a woman who is devout, who is preparing to live a life under religious vows, who is confronted by the difficulties of family ties and of terrible evil in the world. He atheist aunt needles her a few times about how her beliefs fit with all this, and honestly, we never know how she reconciles that question. It isn't a movie which discusses questions of belief and faith in any explicit way. It simply shows us a woman we almost immediately come to care about confronting things about as difficult as anyone will ever confront. And in the end it at least hints at what her decision on how to move forward with her life is. In this sense, it's something more and something less than a movie about faith. Let it be what it is. Watch it, if you have an appreciation for this kind of storytelling or for this kind of history. But don't try to make it into some kind of faith identity boosterism.
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