“Why am I not here?”
A life well lived. Now there’s a concept very few of us can truly comprehend. It doesn’t mean old age. It doesn’t mean fame or fortune. It doesn’t even mean legacy, familial or otherwise. A life well lived can be ten years long or one hundred years short—the only necessity being that you somehow left this world better on your own terms and in front of whatever God or lack thereof you choose. Some of us are lucky; others the victim of fate, time, and circumstance. We don’t know what our path is until we follow our heads, diverge trajectory towards our heart’s desire, and ultimately discover which really was which. Life is different for us all—tragic, complicated, and messy. And it’s ours, whether we’re allowed to live it our not.
This is the lesson I took from Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida, a story about a young nun-in-training about to say her vows when Mother Superior suggests she meet the aunt who refused to take her in so many years previously. It’s Poland in the 60s so you can do the math and realize this innocent girl—who has known no life outside the convent—was born into the throes of World War II. She knows it even if she doesn’t yet know its importance in where she’s ended up, but until it comes looking for her she’s content living for God, her sisters, and her faith. After all, what could she learn that would be so devastating she’d question her path? What new test would she face before taking the last step towards the only future she’s ever imagined?
Unfortunately—or fortunately depending on if you’re watching the secrets unfold with a half full or half empty gaze—Anna’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) about to awaken to genuine horror. It’s not her idea to visit Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), but she follows orders and tries to make the best of it by culling together answers that have plagued her since her earliest memories. This is why she doesn’t ask the strange woman she meets about her life, occupation, or philosophical identity. No, her question is an emotionless, “Why didn’t you come get me?” We don’t expect a fully realized, staged answer of remorse or guilt in return and neither does Anna. We accept Wanda’s, “I couldn’t, I didn’t want to, and you wouldn’t have liked it” at face value because we know it’s probably the truest response possible.
As for the “shock” revelation Anna is actually a Jew named Ida, the aforementioned math makes it hardly a surprise. It is the girl’s first real hiccup, though, that initial moment of pause wondering whether religious birthright is stronger than present faith and fidelity. The silence quickly evaporates and her stoicism is reclaimed as though she learned nothing more than her parents’ names. Her hair remains covered, her refusal of alcohol and dancing leading to carnal desire remains staunch, and her prayers are spoken each night. The Catholicism she’s devoted her life to bowed slightly but snapped back into place. And no matter what her aunt says about not allowing her niece to waste her life becoming a nun, Anna’s focus holds strong. She’ll find where her parents were buried, pay her respects, and return home.
If only it were that simple. If only we all found our vocation young and merely grew into it like the dystopian world of Divergent or The Hunger Games—one could say such a life would be easy by removing the struggle of free will. It’s therefore interesting to see this era of Communist Poland as just that, a gradually pieced back together land holding on and rebuilding post-Nazis. It’s even more interesting to discover Wanda is a “comrade”—a judge who did her part sending enemies of the state to the gallows. A bringer of death currently lost in the bottle and a steady stream of men paired with a virgin nun wholly chaste in mind, body, and soul: two women at a crossroads about to be tested to their core.
Where their adventure leads them is dark and emotionally treacherous to both despite one knowing the answer and the other not. Their playing field is leveled because neither is ready to pull on that string whether from Wanda’s fear or Anna’s ignorance towards anything of her past life as Ida. They must seek out men from the war who knew their deceased family members—angry, frustrated men within an anti-Semitic community ready to dismiss the headstrong Jew at their door while possessing a revelry for the nun at her side. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition or preconceptions and moral repugnancy, the idea of “human being” still somehow less important than visual stimuli declaring someone’s religious affiliation. And even so, the truth of what happened is still more heinous and unforgiving—acts no amount of repenting can forgive.
It’s a haunting reality that Pawlikowski and cowriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz share, one with sparse plot so characterizations can shine. Kulesza’s Wanda possesses an unmatched broken-hearted ferocity on a collision course with tragedy, her strength to put the hypotheses she’s made about the War’s casualties to rest solidified with Anna by her side in a concentrated ball of fire burning beyond its limits. Hers was a life of blind vengeance that couldn’t bring back what she lost and yet she sees her niece wasting life’s potential behind the walls of God. To her one of them must live for those who couldn’t and she already squandered her chance. It’s up to Anna to honor them now, but which path will? The unknown lust for flesh? Or her universal, unyielding love from faith? Not even she knows anymore.
And that’s the beauty of Trzebuchowska’s nuanced performance as this young woman trapped between worlds and forced to cope with a bombshell that can’t help but shake her. Shot in full-frame with action anchored to the bottom in gorgeous composition, it’s as though Pawlikowski and his cinematographers want us to feel God in the empty space above, watching. He’s there during the smiles, vitriol, and gut punch of man’s capacity for horror; allowing Anna to feel pain and anguish too strong to quietly suppress underneath her habit. In the end it isn’t God or man’s decision by creating our evils or doling them out respectively, though. It’s on us to combat both, accept our faults, and face our trials before becoming who we’re meant to become. Whether she’s pious Anna or free-spirited Ida is ultimately up to her.
 Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films
 Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films
 Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films