In Joseph Campbell's masterful text, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he traces the quest of the hero through three major stages: separation, initiation and return. The separation stage is a separation from a "normal" existence into an unknown one, one that the hero has never before experienced; the initiation stage concerns the trials and tribulations the hero faces and has to overcome; and the return stage is not necessarily a physical return, though it may be, but a spiritual return. In other words, the hero cannot be the same person at the end of the journey as he was at the beginning. For Campbell (as with many other anthropologists who deal with rites of passion, such as Arnold Van Gennep, Jessie Weston, Mircea Eliade) there is something that sets the quest in motion. For Campbell it was a passing phenomenon, something that happens almost by chance, something aleatory that sets the hero on the quest.
In Paweł Pawlikowski's, "Ida" this structure is basically followed almost to the letter. The film opens with an 18-year old Anna preparing to take vows at the convent where, we later discover, she was left as an infant. True to form, Anna is told by the Mother Superior that she has relative she must visit before taking her vows (not sure why) and so Anna leaves the comfortable confines of the convent to meet her aunt in the city. So, the separation has been clearly established.
We discover that her aunt, Wanda, was her mother's sister and a former Communist judge who even sentenced people to death. After a rather cursory exchange between them, during which time she's told she's Jewish, Anna leaves to return to the convent when the aunt has a change of heart, finds Ida at a bus station and the two of them go on a quest to find out where Ida's parents are buried. This begins the initiation stage of Anna's quest; namely, the road of trials. After a number of these trials have been overcome (i.e. they find the remains; rebury the remains; Anna discovers a love interest and she begins to ponder her identity) she returns to the convent. In Campbellian terms, one might think the quest has been concluded and that would be true, but only to a point since Anna feels she is not yet ready for her vows. At the same time, her aunt realizes she can't go on with her life as it is since living in loneliness and guilt of the past is too much and she commits suicide by leaping out her apartment window. Her death allows Anna to return to the city not only to bury her aunt, but to entertain certain taboos heretofore unmentionable namely engaging in sexual intercourse with her saxophone-playing love interest whom she met during the initiation phase.
When asked by her boyfriend to join him on a tour with his group, she answers by asking what they would do after that to which he mentions mundane things like marriage and children. Life. At least, life as he saw it. Apparently, that isn't enough for Anna who, in an attempt to expiate her sins, leaves her sleeping boyfriend and seemingly walks all the way back to the convent since the film concludes with her trekking along the back roads towards the convent.
Certainly, the black and white cinematography is exceptional and the framing of many of the shots, though some may think contrived, is done very skillfully as is Pawlikowski's directing. At eighty minutes, the story seemed somewhat abbreviated, but that's not the significant issue. The significant issue for me was the fact that Anna was absolutely stoic about everything. When she was told she was Jewish, she showed no emotion; when she and her aunt discover the remains of her parents, she showed no emotion; when they re-buried the remains of her parents in Lublin, she showed no emotion; when she buries her aunt, she showed no emotion; when she has sex with her boyfriend, she showed no emotion. The only time she showed any emotion was when she felt she was not ready to take vows and as she watched one of the other neophytes take them, she wept. Finally, emotion, but I wasn't quite sure what to make of that emotion.
The film takes place in 1962, seventeen years after the end of the war, sixteen years after the Nuremberg trials and the revelation of the death camps. One must assume that at 18 she knew of the Holocaust and the revelation that she was Jewish and that her parents were murdered because of that would somehow move her. But that's not the case. One could make the argument that Anna chose Catholicism over Judaism precisely because she was "saved" by the nuns. Ironically, the truth of the matter was that she was taken to the convent by someone who lived in her parents' village and who was not only responsible for murdering her family, but who subsequently claimed their house. We discover that reason he didn't kill her was because she was "too small" and wouldn't be thought of as being Jewish. In exchange for leaving him alone, he was willing to help Anna and her aunt find where the family remains were buried and Anna agreed to that.
So, what's the Campbellian resolution here? For Campbell, there had to be some kind of spiritual awakening in the hero by the end of the return. The hero cannot be the same person at the end of the quest as she was at the beginning. Prior to her second return, Anna seemed to be that person. Perhaps, at that point, she was Ida, but when she returns to the convent the second time, she is not Ida if she ever were Ida, but Anna. Still stoic, still resolute in her faith, still wearing the same religious garb, still seemingly unaffected by anything that happened during her trials. One could make the argument that the reason for her unabashed stoicism had to do with the fact that she was religiously brainwashed in the convent. If that's the argument, then was Pawlikowski's film a comment on the Polish Catholic Church a half-century ago? Or today? That religious propaganda somehow dehumanizes people? Regardless, throughout the film I was waiting for a bit of humanity to seep out, an ever so slight acknowledgement that somehow a part of her too died with her parents, but that she had been renewed. Alas, that didn't happen and that particular notion faded to black with the film.