Ida is a film about discovery and claiming your faith. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida tells the story of a Polish orphan who has been raised by nuns after the death of her parents toward the end of the Second World War, and goes on to explore her relationship with a newly-discovered aunt. The film is set in 1962, a couple of weeks before Ida is to take her final vows. The Mother Superior informs Ida of an aunt living in Poland, whom the Sisters feel that Ida should try to contact, though they themselves have been trying for years and have been met only with the aunt’s disinterest. Ida meets her aunt, Wanda, and learns that she was born a Jew. Wanda reluctantly agrees to accompany Ida on a journey to find out where her father and mother – Wanda’s sister – died. Wanda, a hard-drinking, hard-living ex-Soviet judge, takes this journey for reasons we learn later in the film. Ida is beautifully shot in black and white in the 4×3 format. It looks as if it might have actually been produced in 1962, and every scene is composed almost as if it is a still photograph. The framing of a lot of shots is very top-heavy and helps to add to the tension in the film.
The journey Ida takes with Wanda is more about finding out who she is than it is about finding the place where her parents died. Along the way, they pick up a young saxophonist (Lis), and it is evident that there is an attraction between the innocent Ida and the worldly musician. She tries very hard to cling to her vows, though you get a sense that there is a yearning to explore her own sexuality. She struggles with what she has learned and with what her heart feels, as any seventeen year old would in that position. Wanda has no such reservations about who she is, and perhaps it is Ida’s perception of her aunt that helps her to cling to the faith she has been brought up with; as a matter of fact, Ida’s Jewish roots do not figure in her journey, which comes to be more about the question of whether or not she will return to the convent.
[Spolier Alert] At the end of the journey with Wanda, Ida does return to the convent; clinging to the faith of her childhood, a faith that had been largely untested…until now. We get a hint of what is going on in her mind in a scene where a couple of the novices are bathing, and though there is no nudity or implied sexual overtones, the scene is still very sensual and gives the audience a sense of the struggles Ida is experiencing. She questions her faith and decides to put off taking her final vows, always ruminating on her time with Wanda and Lis.
Her life does change, though, when very suddenly, Wanda commits suicide and Ida has to settle her aunt’s affairs. For the first time, Ida really begins to explore the world outside of her convent. She puts on some of Wanda’s more provocative clothing, reunites with Lis, and enjoys a night with him. Ida finally has a chance to see her faith in contrast to life in Soviet-controlled Poland, and the world at large. Yet she is still questioning, always thinking; she never loses that look in her eyes that gives the audience the sense that she is just trying to figure out who she is.
The final scene in the movie has been called a “cop-out” by some critics, but I see it as a triumph. After their evening together, Ida leaves a sleeping Lis in the morning, and we see her walking back to the convent, in her habit. In the experience of this “lost weekend,” Ida has taken control of her faith: in the end, her atheist aunt has given Ida the gift of a legacy, a future, and perhaps most importantly, a faith that is genuinely her own.