The Edge of Faith: Negotiating the Boundaries of Religious Identity in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida
By Taryn Fleischmann | 11.03.2019
Unlearning identity categories is a mental and physical process at the core of Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida (2013). Set in 1962, the film follows Anna, an orphaned and convent-raised woman about to take her vows to become a nun. Ida comes to focus on Anna’s cross-Poland adventures, which unfold alongside her estranged aunt Wanda. Their journey begins when Anna is informed of her Jewish heritage and birth-name, Ida Lebenstein. Anna and her aunt are an unlikely duo. Anna practices as a devout Catholic while Wanda is a state judge and member of the Communist Party. Wanda is an alcohol-drinking, music-listening, and cigarette-smoking woman who represents an increasingly liberal Poland. As the relationship between the two women progresses along their travels, truths surrounding Ida’s parents’ tragic death under the Nazi regime are brought to the forefront of the film. With Wanda’s persistent and often comedic testing of Anna/Ida’s faith, Ida is forced to reconcile her never-before-questioned Catholic-self and her Jewish heritage. Shot in black and white and in pared-back locations, Ida encourages the spectator to reflect upon the complexities of existing at the margins between two distinct identities. In exploring the new boundaries of Anna/Ida’s identity, the film reveals the constructed quality of faith that comes to be experienced by the film’s protagonist while also highlighting religion’s significant role in fostering a sense of community, self-worth, and stability amidst hardship.
The opening sequence of Ida focuses on Anna/Ida’s unquestioned devotion to Catholicism. As the scene commences, Anna is depicted in a tight closeup, polishing a statue of Jesus in a bare concrete room of the convent. Her close proximity to the statue, coupled with the camera’s tight framing is demonstrative of Anna’s intimacy with her religion at this point in the narrative. When Anna is finished polishing the figure, three young women come to transport the statue to the front yard. In a witty, above-angle shot, the camera depicts the face-up Jesus statue emerging from the bottom left corner of the screen; the women barely discernible underneath the enormous figure. This depiction of Jesus, which facilitates a moment of amusement for the spectator, is representative of Anna/Ida’s own expressions of religious criticism, which evolve throughout the film. Together the four women erect the statue, encircle it, and pray; the convent looming in the background. The scene then cuts to the interior of the convent, presenting a montage of Anna’s day-to-day activities; praying and eating soup with her sisters. Here, the camera’s close alignment with Anna offers the spectator insight into her daily participation within these religious routines and foreshadows her impending journey towards self-discovery. After the montage, when Anna is given instructions to visit her aunt in the city, her once-regulated behaviour as a Catholic nun begins to acquire novel and complex connotations.
On the train to the city, Anna’s image is captured by a handheld camera that rattles and shakes with the tram’s every jolt. Here, the unstable camera creates a stark contrast between the scenes in the convent, where the steadiness of the shot speaks to a smooth and controlled environment. The drastic shift in camera technique — from steady to hand-held — within this transitory moment alludes to the loss of predictability and consistency in Anna’s life as it was once offered by the convent, and the uncertainty of what her impending journey holds.
Anna’s arrival in the city, the discovery of her true identity, and her ensuing adventures with her aunt can be well understood by Rosi Braidotti’s seminal feminist text Nomadic Theory. In her work, Braidotti focuses her attention on the lived experiences of the human body. She calls for a subjectivity that benefits from every social encounter and is constantly in flux, in the process of becoming. Braidotti states, “the emergence of social subjects is always a collective enterprise” (Braidotti 2012: 4). Similarly to Braidotti’s Nomadic Theory, Ida demonstrates a particular interest in the transitory subject with Anna/Ida’s religious self-questioning and growth.
On their journey, Ida and Wanda arrive at Ida’s birth-home in the Polish countryside. It is here where they meet the property’s new occupant, Feliks Skiba, the man whose family hid the Lebensteins during the war. This is a cathartic encounter that ultimately facilitates Ida’s (and the film’s) meditation on the meaning of her religious identity. In the home, Wanda sits at a table with a thematically Catholic painting hung above her head. Meanwhile, Ida stands observantly across the room. Underneath a doorway affixed with a cross, Ida appears to blend in with her surroundings for the first time since leaving the convent. As she listens to her aunt discuss her family’s past with Feliks, the camera cuts back to Ida. While still within the threshold, Ida’s face fills up the screen through the enlistment of a tighter close-up, which excludes the cross from the frame. The sudden absence of the cross suggests Ida’s growing understanding of the violence that defined her Jewish family’s past. Further, for its relentless use of Catholic iconography in a historically Jewish home, the house itself serves as an allegory for the cleansing of minority groups that overwhelmed Poland during the war, as well as the country’s subsequent homogeneous demographic.
While Ida continues to wander throughout the property, her and Wanda’s shared pain and discomfort are made palpable to the spectator; the two women simultaneously reconciling their disparate experiences of the war. Ida’s encounter with Feliks and her old family home ultimately serves as a catalyst for her unlearning of Catholicism and concurrent self-exploration. At the site of her parents’ grave, for instance, Feliks explains to Ida that she was small, easily disguisable, and so placed within a convent. Here, Ida’s Christian faith comes to be understood as a product of horrific circumstances—a direct result of Jewish persecution.
With a newfound curiosity for the world around her, Ida and her aunt continue their adventures along the Polish countryside, heading towards their hotel in Sydlow. While Wanda drives the car and smokes cigarettes, the camera resumes its shakiness, once again signifying the uncertainty ahead. As the women continue along the backroads, the spectator is given Ida’s perspective. The long shot of the forest that surrounds Ida indicates her personal growth and her newfound openness to the ongoing process of learning and self-questioning. Here, the picture mimics its initial identification with Anna in the convent sequence, where she engages in the banalities of her everyday. The camera’s alignment with Anna, which pointedly comes after a traumatic confrontation, functions to legitimize these new experiences and her journey of self-discovery more broadly by portraying them as formally analogous to her experiences in the convent.
On their way to the hotel, Ida and Wanda pick up a hitchhiker, Lis, who is serendipitously headed to the same location. As Lis seats himself behind Ida in the car, we are presented with a tight close-up of Ida’s eyes in the rearview mirror, her interest visibly piqued and her typically disassociative self subsiding. We learn that Lis is an alto-sax musician, an instrument that Wanda describes as “male, sensuous.” Lis, whose name translates into “Fox,” can be understood as embodying Ida’s carnal, and ultimately forbidden, temptations. Ida’s interest in this stranger is emphasized as the camera presents a head on shot of a smitten Ida in the foreground and Lis in the background. This shot, which focuses exclusively on Ida and Lis, foreshadows the couple’s looming relationship, which develops first at the hotel where Ida (clad in her nun uniform), attends the party where he is performing and in the future, when they meet in the city. Braidotti states that “each nomadic connection offers at least the possibility of an ethical relation of opening out toward an empowering connection to others” (3). For Ida, Lis offers a genuine departure from her typically Catholic self. Ida’s confrontation with her old family home and subsequent encounter with a tempting stranger reveals the complexities of everyday life that Ida had been unable to experience within her strict Catholic practice.
When Ida returns to the convent having visited her family’s grave and witnessed some of the very acts that the church staunchly disallows (drinking, smoking, female sexuality), she is discernibly different. Inside the convent, Ida resumes to her religious duties but resigns herself to the peripheries of the group. In a scene where the nuns are bathing in white garments, Ida watches observantly but remains considerably distant from her peers within the frame as they wash one another. Through a match on action shot, Ida can be seen gazing voyeuristically at the women as the water causes their linens to cling to their bodies—an act of sexual curiosity that would seemingly be unthinkable for the devout Ida at the beginning of the film. Ida’s liberated and critical nature reaches its climax when at dinner, in a scene similar to the montage at the film’s commencement, she laughs to herself, breaking the austere silence of the room. The restrained nature of the convent is antithetical to Wanda and the liberal world she allowed Ida to experience firsthand.
Eventually, Ida determines that she is not ready for her vows. The next time we see her, she is alone in her aunt’s city apartment; Wanda having committed suicide in a previous scene due to the trauma of loss. Here, Ida comes to embody her aunt. As if playing dress-up, Ida replaces her nun uniform with Wanda’s dress and heels, smokes a cigarette, and swigs vodka from the bottle. Ida’s personification of a liberal, modern woman similarly signifies the performative nature of her Catholic faith. These two instances — Ida’s critical stance at the convent and her subsequent adoption of her aunt’s garments and behaviours — reveal a women struggling to negotiate two distinct identities, and ultimately, a newfound perspective on religion.
The film’s final sequence finds Ida dressing herself back up in her nun’s uniform after spending the night with Lis. A tracking shot traces Ida’s movement out of her aunt’s apartment and along the city street. When the scene cuts to the dirt road, the camera continues to track Ida face-on, intently following her return to the convent. Here, the slight shakiness of the camera recalls Ida’s initial arrival to the city and thus suggests that despite returning home, she is continuing to embark on self-discovery. This is a sympathetic moment where, rather than condemning Ida’s return to religion, the film stays close to her as she navigates new turbulence in her life. Through a portrayal of Ida’s experiences with both Catholicism and Judaism, the film remains inconclusive: refusing to endorse a particular way of living over another.
Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida reveals the complexities of religious identity and religion itself through an exploration of its protagonist’s past and present. Ida omits any overt display of violence, and yet with its bleak settings and dull lighting, the film communicates religion’s contradictory ability to incite hate and, significantly, its ability to foster community and stability. Through her many journeys, Ida is confronted with her religion’s contradictions, leaving her to negotiate opposing identities in addition to loss and anguish. In choosing to resume her devout Catholic practice with a newfound criticism, Anna/Ida blurs the boundaries between piety and public life. For its nuanced approach to religion and secularism, Ida encourages an active spectator to reflect upon her own identity and various belief systems too.
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