My initial reaction to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida was anger and frustration: Not at the historical injustice documented in the film. Not at the personal tragedy. Rather, it's the film itself that bothers me: It is a film about two Jewish women in the wake of the Holocaust, but Judaism itself is absent from the picture. A. O. Scott observes, in his New York Times review, the film "unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland's endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect." What Scott fails to notice, however, is that Judaism exists in the film only negatively: Jews are victims of the Holocaust; Jews are corrupt communists, faithless, self-destructive and morally lost. The film makes "an implicit argument . . . between faith and materialism," as Scott also observes, but it is Catholic faith that is on the line, not Judaism. There is no representation of Judaism as a viable option in the film at all.
Finally, thanks to Joanna Auron-Górska, there is a review of the film I can wholly get behind. She writes: "Ida shirks the responsibility that there is in the terrible knowledge imparted to its main character." That knowledge, of course, is that the titular Ida is a Jew whose parents were slaughtered by Polish farmers during the Holocaust. The entire review is well-worth reading, but this is where she identifies what I think is the main problem with the film:
"Why doesn't Ida ask herself what her being Jewish may mean to her? She has a go at the secular life; why does she not at least try on her Jewishness, the way she tries on the pearls and the vodka? It may have been difficult if not impossible to be a Jew at that time in Poland in any other sense than that of an internalized, partially hidden identity, of memory, or of faith; but it was certainly possible in those ways. For Ida, though, Jewishness is inconsequential. Had she at least explored the appearances, she would have to ask herself what it is like - if it is not possible to learn what it actually is - to be a Jew; she would have to assess the viability of her Jewishness; try to make meaning out of her family's death; attempt to understand the significance of the virtual disappearance of Jewish communities from Poland; finally, she would have to critically appraise the Poles and their Church. She does none. The return to the convent is Ida's best, in fact her only choice."
During a scene in the middle of the film, Ida and Wanda struggle over a Christian Bible. It may be the most emotionally salient scene in the film, for it is the only time Ida expresses any significant emotions. As Wanda suggests, it is as if a wild beast awoke inside the otherwise placid and stoic girl. When Ida finds out she is Jewish, her face doesn't change. When she sees the man who killed her parents during the Holocaust, her face doesn't change. When she is handed their remains, and travels a long distance to bury them properly, her face doesn't change. But when Wanda wants to quote the Bible to her, seeking to justify her decadent lifestyle, Ida erupts in violence and forces the holy book out of her hands. Ida can face genocide with a dispassionate eye, but she cannot tolerate misuse of the Christian Bible--at least, not in the hands of a drunken, promiscuous Jew.
Ida's violent outburst over the Bible is not a sign of bubbling anger or frustration with the world and her place in it. She never again shows any inclinations towards violence. She never again shows anger or frustration at all. In fact, her only other outburst in the film is the momentary, slight laugh she accidentally emits during dinner back at the convent. What recollection or insight brought laughter to her lips? We have no way of knowing. The point is not why she was laughing, but that she was noticeably out of place, no longer comfortable in her old skin. It didn't have to be laughter. It could have been any emotional outburst at all. Why does she laugh? This should be striking, for nowhere in the film is Ida ever given reason to laugh. She and Wanda have just found the man who killed her parents, watched him dig up their remains, and then driven a long way across Poland for a proper burial. After all of that, Ida returns to the convent without any hint of emotion. No anger, no frustration, no tears. Then, for no apparent reason, she gives a small laugh over dinner?
Imagine if, instead of a laugh, Ida had quickly suppressed an unintended cry of grief? What if she gripped her fork tightly and brought it down just a tad too hard on the table, causing some heads to turn? Wouldn't that have made more sense? Wouldn't it have given some depth to her journey, and not made her seem so empty and uncaring? Some sense that she was struggling with what had happened to her and her family?
Or does she simply not care? Is that the point? Forgive and forget, as they say?
When Ida finally decides to leave the convent on her own, it is not because she is Jewish. It is not because of her situation, her family's fate or her people's tragedy. It is because she is childishly and innocently curious about the world. And what she finds is death and a meaninglessness that cannot be cured by romance or the possibility of a family. So she turns back. Pawlikowski has said that we are not supposed to know if Ida returns to the convent or not at the end of the film. Why, then, does he have her dress as a nun? If he wanted an ambiguous ending, he should have had Ida wearing plain clothes at the end of the film. And how much more effective would that have been: a young woman taking the first steps alone towards self-discovery as a Jew, with no clear path forward, venturing bravely into a mysterious world alone, hoping for meaning but not sure where to look? That would be a powerful ending, especially if we had seen her struggling with anger and rage, fear and mortification, beforehand. Especially if we had seen her doubt the institution and faith which so far had dressed her. Unfortunately, that is not Ida.
Ida looks most comfortable, most natural, when she is a nun. At the hospital, after they have confronted the man they believe killed her parents, Ida holds Wanda, comforting her. Wanda is in turmoil, but Ida is emotionless. She is dutiful. That is her character, but it does not feel real. She does not seem human. This may be partly because of how the part is acted (we have to wonder whether Ida's restrained characterization is the result of Agata Trzebuchowska's acting talents or the lack thereof; either way, it is surely intentional), but it is also because of how unnaturally the image is framed: the two women are at the lower right-hand corner of the screen, their bodies cut awkwardly out of the frame, and their huddled shapes overwhelmed by the vast, barren wall behind them.
Has Ida struggled with her faith? Presumably she had some doubts, or she wouldn't have left the convent the second time. But where is her struggle? How does it play out? In a short-lived experiment with alcohol and cigarettes? In a one-night flirtation with secular romance? These are traversed without pause or hesitation, without reflection or consideration of their significance. It is as if Ida is trying to force her awakening before its time. Or perhaps she is awake, but unable to feel.
Ida tries on Wanda's decadent lifestyle, but without Wanda's tears. Ida still does not cry. She does not scream. She does not rage against her fate. There is no visible grief or struggle at all. Instead, she is playful. She spins delicately in Wanda's curtains and falls clumsily to the floor. As with the laugh in the dining hall, this scene would make much more sense in a different movie, one with a lighter tone and less at stake. Ida does not seem to experience the world around her. She does not respond to the world as it is. She is not there.
Ida is a film, like its protagonist, without an emotional compass. It ends with Ida as she has always been: most comfortable clothed in Catholic garments, without an identifiable sense of loss or discovery. Ida is more cipher than human. And while we might respect the artistry with which the auteur has pulled off this abstraction, we have to wonder at its meaning. What is gained by making a film about the Holocaust in which the only salient emotional struggle occurs between two Jewish women and a Christian Bible?