02/12/2014 08:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pawel Pawlikowski's New Film Ida : A Sublime Journey Into Faith

It was my favorite film at the Marrakech Film Festival: Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, a quiet black-and-white road movie about a young nun who, about to take her vows, is instructed by her Mother Superior to first meet her aunt Wanda, a relative she did not even know existed. The sober, waif-like Ida has grown up in the convent, an orphan believing she has no family.

The film, which won several prizes this year, is basically the story of Ida discovering who she really is, and what happened to her family, as she and her aunt drive into the bleak wintry Polish countryside to discover the graves of her parents. Lurking behind the mystery of Ida's past, we learn, are the horrors of the Holocaust.

What makes this film riveting is the sobriety of the telling. Each shot is stark, with a fine contrast of light and shadow. Dialogue is minimal. It is the image that speaks: close-ups of Ida's luminous face; shots of a dark forest where secrets hide; the dismal farm houses of the Polish countryside; the smoky interior of a jazz club where a young man, a third character in the story -- and a possible love interest for Ida -- plays Coltrane on his saxophone.

The question at the heart of this quiet story: Will Ida, previously a naïve girl who simply follows the orders of the convent (she is first seen devoutly painting a Jesus statue), keep her faith, despite what she discovers? From the opening shots, we know that her faith is based on routine: the nuns sipping their soup in unison, the girls stretched prostrate in a row. The enormity of what Ida learns will forbid the ease of rote faith.

A counterpart to Ida's journey is Aunt Wanda's own struggle with faith in life, tout court. Unlike Ida, she has chosen a hedonistic life to deal with the evils of the past, both those she has suffered, and those she has caused herself as an avid prosecutor in Stalinist show trials, responsible for hanging "enemies of the people." Wanda chain-smokes, drinks constantly, and amuses herself with picking up men in bars.

The last scene of the film is a sublime pay-off to this journey of sober images. Ida's decision is clear, the complexity of the thought and feeling behind it conveyed simply through a panning shot on her body along a stone path. We hear the silence of her footsteps and feel her transformation inside ourselves.

I met with director Pawel Pawlikowski in Paris, in the lounge of the Lutètia Hotel, a hotel that ironically has its own dark past in the Holocaust. The headquarters of the Gestapo intelligence during the Vichy occupation, it was later the receiving dock for Jews coming back from the camps.

"I feel the past here," Pawlikowski said as I sat down. "The ghosts in my room."


His film also evokes ghosts.

Could the film be revealing something about Poland's own guilty past?

"No," the director vehemently responded.

He continued with fervor, expressing annoyance with the critics who see Ida primarily as a political-historical film about the Holocaust or Poland. "My film happens to take place at a historical moment. But my concern is with the universal."

Yet the film does, he admitted, evoke the past: the director's own. His choice to set the film in the 1960s speaks to his nostalgia for his youth spent during that period in Poland, until the age of 14, when he and his family left for England.

But the 1960s he remembers was not an era of darkness, but rather that of an exuberant artistic revolution, in music and the arts.

"Poland was considered at the time the coolest Communist country. It was more anarchic than the others. The authorities allowed jazz and pop music. I remember the pop songs, the beatnik youth. The melancholy shabby reality. It was an exciting time, a real explosion. Things were happening. Theater was fantastic, with Grotowski etc. Suddenly in the '60s there was more oxygen, and people were hungry with it. They grabbed it with both hands."

Congruent with his memory of his childhood, throughout the film, snippets of lyrical music -- Bach, Mozart, Coltrane and a host of avant garde Polish artists -- come up ever so often, creating a poetic soundtrack to Ida's spiritual journey. A jazz musician himself, as well as a former doctoral student in literature and philosophy, Pawlikowski's choice to recreate Poland in the 1960s also coincides with his recent return from exile. It is the first film he has made on Polish soil and perhaps -- my guess -- his most personal.

But the past is just the setting, Pawlikowski reminds me. The true subject of Ida is "a meditation on identity, faith, responsibility," beyond the historical context.

Why does this central issue -- faith -- interest the director?

"Because in Poland, religion has become so tribal, so connected with Polish identity. It has lost its transcendental character. Spirituality has evaporated from the Church. It is an institution with something lacking from the center."

And yet the film manages to avoid any judgments of religion. Nor is there any judgment of the characters: Ida, the sheltered novitiate; Wanda, the prosecutor with blood on her hands; not even the murderers in the Holocaust.

"One of my favorite writers is Chekhov," Pawlikowski explained. "I love his attitude toward the world. Just accept things for what they are. Don't judge. Be moral as you tell your story, but have no moral at the end. Just look at it."

It is the bare aesthetics of the film that creates this sense of moral detachment.

"I wanted the film to feel like a meditation. Each scene is told in one shot. Everything happens within it. The actors have the density. I did not want to push the dramatic element. I prefer shots that are things in themselves."

He seconded my opinion on the meaning of the last shot.

"The shot is very dynamic. For the first time, the camera follows Ida's body. There is new energy."