People are often quick to take for granted the circumstances and context of their lives. Who we are, where we come from and how we are raised are often the most defining and crucial elements of our lives that we fail to understand as long as we stay in that world. To understand the value of these things, one must break away from them.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman raised as an infant in a nunnery, is told that she must meet her only known living relative before taking her vows: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). This begins a journey to discover the resting place of her parents whom Wanda reveals were Jewish. In the process, Anna is exposed to a world alien and strange to her, one filled with vice and sin as well as strange new and exciting experiences.
The vows provide an intriguing framework for the film, an initial impetus to meet her aunt, as the film progresses, something it seems everyone assumed Anna would do without thought becomes an interesting sense of tension. As she sees a world beyond her own, she is able to see both the positive and negative values of the life outside the nunnery.
Wanda embodies many of the negative possibilities. As a cynical, bitter and pain-filled woman, she is consumed by the need for pleasure to help bury the pain. When she isn’t dragging on a cigarette, she’s looking drunkenly at an empty glass of alcohol or in the arms of any man who will take her for the evening. All these vices proved thin barriers pushing back against pain.
However, there’s also something intoxicating about this world. The young man named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) plays jazz at one of the hotels they stay at and Anna catches his fancy. The prospect of passionate love and a life with a husband and children is presented to Anna and it certainly has merit and worth.
Without understanding what both of these tell Anna about the world beyond the nunnery, her vows would mean very little. Wanda’s life presents the world that the vows would try to protect her from experiencing. However, Lis shows a good life that would be possible, showing that the vows are also a sacrifice and dedication to a life without the benefits of some of the wonders of the world.
And while Anna is presented with this conflict, when interacting with these characters, she is quick to express her faith as a form of deep grace. Digging into her past brings up many opportunities for hatred and anger. While Wanda gives into these opportunities, Ida remains patient, forgiving and loving throughout it all. This is not to say Anna is perfect, far from it, but she demonstrates that even if she does not take her vows, she believes in a higher way.
Ida presents these ideas without any pretense of moral or spiritual superiority. Like Anna, the film is deeply sympathetic to the irreligious. It also does not glorify the monastic lifestyle or vows. There’s enough joy and life in the world that Anna would not see if she never stepped out of that world. No matter what, life will be painful, Ida suggest that grace is the only way to bear such pain.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing