Have you seen the film Ida?
It is a Polish movie, the recipient of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is a powerful, brilliant piece of filmmaking. I use those words powerful and brilliant, because, 48 hours later, I am still contemplating and dissecting the movie; I am still in meditation over its meaning and in awe at how the film has stimulated my own thoughts and tested my beliefs.
The story is a road trip in the early 1960s in Poland between a young woman, brought up in a convent and on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, and her aunt, a once leading figure in Poland's post war Communist Party and now a judge. The young woman has no worldly or sensual experiences and is about to begin her adult life by joining the once almighty, but now politically bankrupt, morally spent, and intellectually disregarded Church. The older woman with her life ending professionally, and judging by her alcohol consumption, physically and emotionally as well, belongs to the new order, the new way of the world, the post war communist party promising brotherhood, meaning and purpose in the years after the cataclysms and holocausts of WWI and WWII. It is a political and philosophical movie, but it is also a deeply personal movie, as two individual life stories, differentiated by commitments to competing ideologies and life's purpose, commitments that dominate and control their lives because of circumstance and history, more than by individual choice, are forced to look past the veneer and trappings of their costumes and titles, to examine who they are and why they are.
As I watched Ida the same challenges arose in me, and as a testament to the great storytelling of the film, are still resident with me. Most concerning, about two-thirds through the film, I said to my girlfriend, "if I were them, I'd take that shovel and split his head". It was an honest and true feeling. I was not acting or parading as some phony tough guy or a has-been Marine, but my visceral, gut reaction at that time, during that scene, was that I would commit violence and I would revel in it to assuage my anger and celebrate revenge. But, as the film went on, and as I reflected on those emotions, spurned by the actions of the characters, I realized how wrong, how foolish and how weak such a sentiment and desire was and how embarrassing my utterance.
In the scheme of the movie, killing the man would have been possible and it would have fulfilled some form of duty or obligation to my family, my community and my people, as well as fulfilling a duty to my own image of myself and my need for vengeance; vengeance based on personal, cultural and institutional values. However, taking myself away from that scene, watching the characters and applying my own life's experience participating in and around the violence of war, I grudgingly recognize and must accept the futility of such violence. I say grudgingly, because violence and revenge is such a part of our identity and our culture that I am loathe to give it up, I am afraid to move on, and to recognize the myth of redemptive violence, as exactly that, a myth constructed primarily for the purposes of national, ethnic, sectarian or religious hegemony, dominance and absolution.
But if I had killed that man, if I had split his head with that shovel, seen death overcome him and gain the satisfaction of such grisly passage of state, what would come of it, what events would I now own? His wife and children, as innocent of crimes as those in whose name I murdered, would be widowed and orphaned on a struggling farm. His sons, would they not seek revenge and in time come for me and my family? Would not the children of my family, the next generation, be butchered in turn? My actions, murder and the infliction of suffering on the innocent, would begin a cycle of violence, an uncontrollable, bloody cycle without end, the likes of which we see in our wars overseas and in the wars in our own cities. And for me? My own experiences in war, my own and personal struggles with moral injury, is that not instructive to me? What would become of my mind and my soul after killing the man?
To move on and say nothing to the man is an option and a better one than violence. However, it is an incomplete option, leaving a chapter of life open ended and without closure, in essence running from a problem and not attempting a resolution, but it does not require the strength needed for a third, and rightful, option. Imagine saying to the man: "I forgive you" and giving him your hand and your blessing. How hard that would be! It seems nearly impossible to me and such a thought, such an option, which leads to an involuntary reflex and rejection within me, would stop the cycle of violence and lead to peace, both within me and my community.
The choice of mercy, of forgiveness, is anathema to my sense of manhood and my obligation for revenge and justice; but what would come of such forgiveness, besides a rejection of cultural and institutionalized violence and loss of personal pride, if I had the courage to enact it? A man would be given mercy and his family spared, and perhaps nothing more than that, but, with deep consideration, is anything else truly necessary? Breaking the cycle of violence is enough. Quite possibly, and maybe very likely, the man would be changed and his family enlightened, who knows, maybe his daughter would grow to be the second coming of Mother Theresa, but such achievements or results would not be necessary to validate or vindicate the forgiveness proffered to the man. Stopping the cycle of violence is enough, the peace that would come to my mind and to my community would be enough.
I like to say that one of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis de Sales: "Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength." Yet, how difficult to turn such an outlook into an attribute, even when through personal experience you have seen the glaring failure and horrific counter-production of violence and have been affected so forcibly by grace, kindness and forgiveness as I have.
So please give Ida a watch. It's a wonderful, well done, contemplative film and I trust it will challenge something in you.
*For another excellent film that takes on the myth of redemptive violence and exposes it for the tragedy it really is, please watch Blue Ruin. Both films are available on Netflix.