Modern culture, at least in the West, is enamored of the idea of self-creation. We are rootless, independent, autonomous, singular. But this is actually an impossible situation. As many choices as we think we have, as much as we think we can create our own identities ex nihilo, we cannot escape the fact that we are given, both in where we find ourselves, as well as in what we have and who we are. Most people throughout the history of the world, I think, have taken this for granted. Even when it has been abused, for example in certain caste or class systems, there is a general acknowledgment that we have been made, rather than having done the making ourselves. We are born into certain families, in certain times, at certain places, and even if we attempt to escape those givens, we are escaping from somewhere, or someone.
In Ida (2013; streaming on Amazon Prime or Kanopy; winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), Pawel Palikowski (director, most recently, of Cold War) tells a story of the complexity and complications of the particularities of family, place, and religion. The bulk of the story is a pilgrimage for Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), as she is about to take her final vows in the convent in which she has been raised since infancy. Her superior tells her about her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza, who played the mother superior in The Innocents), who is her only living relative, and that she should spend some time with her aunt before she takes her final vows.
Wanda, an alcoholic and former State prosecutor for the Soviet-run Polish regime, asks Ida, bluntly, “So you’re a Jewish nun?” Her parents were Jewish, but she ended up in a Roman Catholic orphanage and convent. The simplicity of a life of prayer is complicated by physical connections she didn’t know she had. Ida and Wanda go on a sort of pilgrimage, and the complications are compounded the further they go: Wanda drives Ida back to the town where she was born, and where they both lived, before Ida’s parents were killed. Ida says she wants to visit her parents’ graves, but Wanda says that because of the war, there is no guarantee that they even have graves to visit. They try to find the man named Szymon (Jerzy Trela), whose family now lives in the house where Ida was born. Finding him leads to the second bond, after family, that ties together Wanda and Ida—the bond of tragedy.
As fraught as those bonds are, they are tangled even more by Wanda’s history and Ida’s religion. And all of that—history, genealogy, past choices and actions, religion—creates the conditions for present and future choices. To be different people at different places in different times necessarily opens up different choices. While Wanda is unable to live with her past choices, combined with tragedy, Ida comes to terms with giving herself to her permanent vows.
She comes to terms, in fact, by entering for a moment into what is essentially Wanda’s life. She tries on Wanda’s clothes, she smokes her cigarettes, she drinks her vodka, she invites Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), the saxophonist, back to the apartment. But Wanda’s life doesn’t fit, and Ida’s pilgrimage leads back to the convent and, presumably, to her permanent vows.
I realize this sounds a bit like “fate,” but I am not thinking of an impersonal force, nor of anthropomorphic “Fates.” There is, however, a significant tension between our desires to create ourselves, and the facts of our birth, history, place, and time that conspire against our self-creation. Certain choices are not open to us, and the more choices we make, the fewer choices we have. It is not fate, but the divine orchestration of all things for good. Not everything is open to me, but neither am I responsible for everything. Finally, there is a very limited sphere in which I live and act and choose. This is what Palikowski shows very well, both here and in Cold War: these are stories of individual lives, in particular circumstances, even if they are connected in various ways to larger, world-affecting events. Palikowski has said that these characters are not stand-ins for institutions, that he’s not simply recounting the history of post-war Poland by means of the characters. Instead, complex characters in complex situations are often opaque to wider social implications or commentary.
In an interview in The Atlantic, Pawlikowski said, “I don’t want to make a film that ‘tackles history,’ God forbid. It’s not about that. We deliberately stayed away from explaining history, which a lot of Polish cinema is bedeviled by. As soon as you start explaining, not only do you have bad dialogue because it’s full of exposition, but also it’s like a very partial explanation. It’s much better to write a book and stick to the research—that’s history. In cinema, emotional truth and psychological truth is much more important.”
In cinema at its best, as in life. When characters are made to stand in for larger cultural or political forces, except maybe in satire, they are flattened as characters—just as actual people are when they are interpreted as ahistorical super(wo)men, disconnected from their own givens of time and place. It would be interesting to see what Pawlikowski might do with a larger and well-known historical figure such as Bach. (Pawlikowski is apparently in the process of writing a film about Bach.) The way Ida’s character is both revealed and concealed by her choices, focused by the camera primarily in the magnetism of her dark eyes, is a reminder that we are never really inside another person’s thoughts and feelings. We only have them from the outside, and we interpret those outward impressions from our own inward understandings. Ironically, that opacity and ambiguity often allows us to enter in to the world of a film more fully than if we have everything spelled out for us—to take our own pilgrimages with the characters, at times parallel with them, and at other times diverging, as it must be.