[This contains spoilers.]
Last week I considered myself lucky to have found time to see “Ida,” the new movie directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Too many movies disappear from theaters before I can get there, and my iPad screen hardly offers the same experience. Filmed in black-and-white, “Ida” promised a challenging look at 1960s Poland through the eyes of a cinematic artist, having received glowing reviews from influential critics in leading publications. Be warned: however limpid the gaze of its wise-child leading actress and creative the cinematography, no number of comparisons to the artistry of Ingmar Bergman and Ansel Adams can obscure the director’s anti-Jewish message.
The protagonist is a novice in a convent who, on the verge of professing her final vows, is sent by the Mother Superior to spend time with an aunt who has long refused to see her. The aunt turns out to be a hard-drinking, hard-living Jewish judge who has corrupted the law and rejected any form of family. Ida learns for the first time that she is Jewish, uncovers the brutal fate of her parents and cousin during the Holocaust, buries their remains in a neglected Jewish cemetery, has a romantic encounter with a jazz musician, and finally commits to life in the convent–all in 80 minutes. Is that any more than the familiar, tragic story of a hidden child whose life was saved but whose Jewish soul was lost?
The choices made by the director reveal that it is not that simple. The aunt is not a doctor or a teacher or a clerk in the post office. “Red Wanda” is a judge, symbol of the dead letter of the Law, associated by Paul and many after him with Old Testament limitations that must be replaced by the Spirit in order to achieve salvation through Christ. It is no coincidence that as a judge under the Communist regime, another failed ideology considered by the movie, she sent presumably innocent people to their deaths as “enemies of the people.” Not only has the aggressive, argumentative Wanda misused and lost faith in the law, but the director also sets up an insidious moral relativism that diminishes the betrayal and murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Her story may be sad, but deserves no pity. That she rejects family, seeks refuge in the carnal pleasures of alcohol and sex, and ultimately commits suicide serves as a denunciation of Judaism’s failures.
In contrast, Ida sets aside her heritage as she journeys toward inner spiritual certainty. She finds all that she lacks in the embrace of the Church. The convent provides Ida with a replacement family, for her “sisters” are gently supportive and the Mother Superior wise, patient, and far-seeing. When the unreliable Wanda lands in jail for drunk driving, Ida finds shelter in the local church where a hospitable priest offers her a temporary home and fatherly kindness. At another point she is asked to bless the baby of a Polish peasant–no innocent request from someone whose ancestors blessed their beloved children on Shabbat eve for centuries. As a future nun, her experience of motherhood promises to be purely spiritual.
Not only are fundamental relationships with human beings replaced as Ida’s commitment to Christianity strengthens, but also those with God and his Word. In one chilling scene, when Wanda reaches for what is either Ida’s Bible or prayer book, the normally self-contained girl fiercely yanks it from the hands of the cynical older woman. Pawlikowski’s unstated message is that the devout Christian stands tall as she takes rightful possession of Scripture from the prostrate, promiscuous, unworthy Jew.
Because the dialogue is noticeably spare, the relative length of the last conversation and its placement immediately before Ida’s confident return to the convent lend it added weight. When the handsome saxophone player invites her to accompany him to his next gig, Ida asks, “What then?” She interjects that question several times as he imagines a future in which they get a dog, marry, have children, and build a life together. Ida’s unspoken conclusion is the profoundly un-Jewish one that life in the world is insufficient. It is in the ascetic life of the convent that Ida will achieve spiritual purity and eternal fulfillment. It is there that she will commit to a meaningful relationship, one devoted to the Christian God. That is the troubling climax to her journey of discovery.
One could argue that the choices Ida makes are reasonable and predictable given her sheltered upbringing in the nurturing world of the convent after the chaos of war. It is not her choices I have a problem with. It is with the director’s choice to craft a parable of supersessionism under the guise of a meditation on the complexity of post-war Poland.