When Americans make — or choose — a movie about the Holocaust or World War II, count on lots of blood and beatings and shootings and screaming. We have trouble with Anton Chekov’s advice, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
In their fine movie, “Ida,” director Pawel Pawlikowski and his co-writer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, show us “the glint of light on broken glass” through the eyes of young Anna/Ida (played by Agata Trezbuchowska.) Raised in a Catholic convent during and after the war, Anna is preparing to take her final vows as a nun. Her Mother Superior directs her to go and meet her only living relative, her aunt, Wanda (played by Agata Kulesza.) Anna is reluctant to leave, but obedient to her superior.
Anna sets out into the grey world of 1960’s Communist Poland, her country, but an alien land to this sheltered 18-year old. She shows up at her aunt’s door, in habit, to meet an alcoholic, chain smoking, promiscuous former judge who now seems to spend her time entertaining strangers in her bed. The aunt shocks Anna with the news that she is, in fact, not a Gentile girl named Anna but “a Jewish nun” whose real name is Ida. She shows her some pictures of her dead parents and dismisses her. Then, spying the girl sitting alone in the bus station, invites her on a terrible journey of discovery. They are off to find Ida’s parents’ grave, but neither Wanda nor Ida know where the bodies lie.
Pawlikowski takes us along the flat roads and into the dark forests of rural Poland, and into the dark heart of Poland’s suffering under and complicity with their Nazi occupiers. The first stop is Wanda and Ida’s mother’s childhood home, now “owned” by a Gentile family who either sheltered or murdered Ida’s parents. As we journey with Ida and Wanda, Pawlikowski somehow manages to reveal the horror without ever resorting to horror movie clichés or tricks. This film is so quiet, so still and so beautifully shot that we are led to be still before the awful unfolding in a winter-shrouded forest, at an overgrown cemetery and out an open city window. In all of this, the director and his able cast ask us to confront the butchery of the 20th century without ever losing sight of each character, each individual life and story and struggle.
Ida is forced to confront the parallel life she might have, and perhaps, should have lived. Why was she spared? Is she, in fact, her aunt’s niece or her Mother Superior’s daughter? What does this mean for the plans she has been making her whole life? Who is she, and how is she to know?
Watch “Ida” this Advent and let it be a meditation on the ways in which we, all of us, choose Herod over the Child in the manger.