This is Part I of a longer essay. Part II is here.

ida posterIda is, by design, a sparse film set in 1950’s Poland. The convent Ida lives in has been her home since she was left there as a young child. When we meet Ida she is preparing to take her final vows to become a nun, but the mother superior calls her into her office and tells Ida that she has an aunt named Wanda she never met, and that she needs to meet her aunt before she takes her final vows.

Wanda is as far from the nuns in the convent as seems possible. She drinks heavily and brings strange men home from the bar. Her job is, or was, a prosecutor in charge of trying people for being enemies of the state. She is also Jewish. This comes as a surprise to Ida (who until this point had been known as sister Anna).

Ida learns that her family was killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII. Wanda does not know what happened to them, but at Ida’s insistence they travel to the town they once lived in to see if they can find the bodies. Along the way they give a ride to Feliks, a saxophone player, whose band is playing at the hotel Wanda and Ida are staying at. Though initially reluctant to indulge in the frivolities of Jazz, ida eventually ventures to the venue to listen to Feliks play. Later the two of the talk and it is clear that Feliks is attracted to Ida, even if she doesn’t see it.

Eventually Wanda and Ida find the farm that Ida’s family once owned, and the son of the man who had promised to care for them. After some time the son shows them the grave where Ida’s family was buried and confesses to killing them to protect his family from the Nazis. Wanda and Ida gather some of the bones and burry them in a family plot in a jewish cemetery.

The two go their separate ways, and neither is content. Back at the convent Ida is no longer completely satisfied with the stoic life of the convent, and decides to delay taking her vows. In the city, Wanda commits suicide. Ida returns to her aunt’s apartment to put things in order, and while she is there tries out her aunt’s life, letting her hair down, wearing her clothes and shoes, smoking and drinking. Ida also goes to visit Feliks, who is in love with her, and has sex with him. Before he wakes up in the morning, Ida, naked[1], puts on her habit and leaves. The last shot in the movie is of Ida walking down a road, her destination unknown.

One of the striking things about Ida is the cinematography. The movie is beautifully shot is black and white, in the Academy aspect ratio (closer to a square), and, with the exception of the last shot, entirely on an unmoving tripod. The aspect ratio of the film makes the film feel confined and at times claustrophobic when compared to the now typical assortment of wide screen aspect ratios.

The stillness of the frame is at many times off-putting, but intentionally so. Instead of following the typical rule of thirds, which would place the subject, most often Ida herself, on the axis marking one third of the frame, she is often place in the corner of the screen, the bottom or far side. Given the otherwise exceptional quality of the cinematography it must be assumed that the cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski, is not inexperienced, but has done this intentionally. This is backed up the fact that Leczewski’s IMDB profile lists fifty-two films to his credit[2].

Given the sparse dialogue in the film our attention is drawn further to the visuals of the film. These visuals, and in particular the framing of the film emphasize the broader theme of the film: Ida’s search of identity. Whether at the convent of trying on her aunt’s shoes the film does not frame Ida in the proper sense. Instead she moves around a frame that appears intended for someone else. Despite her desire to fit in at the convent, or in the wild life of her aunt, she doesn’t quite fit. It isn’t until the last shot, where Ida walks down the road that the frame fits her properly. In this shot the camera is off the tripod and moving down the road with her. Not only does she fit in the frame properly, but it follows her movement, bouncing down the road. This last shot lets us know that Ida has found her place.

Finding Ida

What Ida’s place is, or where she is headed is not explicitly revealed. I will not try to “get to the bottom of things” or to offer the definitive explanation for where Ida is going or what her place is. I will however try to offer a plausible explanation for her actions.

In the convent Ida’s life, and the life of the other nuns, is austere. Their diet consists mainly of thin soup, with the clinking of spoons on bowls the only sound at the table. Their clothing is the traditional habit, and what little music there is reflects the somber setting. To say that it is a joyless place may be an understatement. Ida doesn’t seem to mind, but she doesn’t seem exactly happy either.

Early in the movie when Ida meets Wanda, Wanda asks her how she can give up sex, booze, and other vices without having experienced them before. I believe these experiences are important, but the journey Ida goes on reveals to her, not what she is giving up by taking her vows, but rather deepens her understanding of them.

In The Catholic Imagination Andrew Greeley writes “If religion is truly good news, there really should be a celebration, and probably a party.[3]” In her interactions with the people she meets, Ida is given honor as a nun-in-training, even being asked to pray for people. Despite her willingness to serve, she seems to be missing this good news that is so central to the gospels through most of the film.

Over the course of the film Ida slowly gains this sense of joy that has been missing from her life. As they encounter each other at the hotel, Ida and Feliks grow closer. Feliks is smitten from the beginning, but Ida, faithful to her coming vows, is slow to warm to him. By the time Ida returns to the convent she is distracted from their way of life, breaking the silence of dinner with laughter while remembering her time with Feliks.

Before Ida leaves the convent she asks God’s forgiveness for delaying her vows saying she isn’t ready yet. In the city Ida meets with Feliks and sleeps with him. In contrast with the way Wanda picked men up from the bar, Ida and Feliks come together through mutual affection. The scene in which they have sex is not lurid, but highlights the gentle affection they have for one another. This isn’t just sex, but is an expression of love. As they go to sleep Feliks is imagining their future life together in a house by the sea. In the morning however, Ida slips out and leaves before Feliks wakes up. Ida has found the joy she is looking for. It is not found in the alcohol and sex that Wanda experimented with, but in intimate love with an other.

When Wanda questioned whether it meant anything for Ida to give up things she had never experienced, she was suggesting that, perhaps if she knew how good sex was she wouldn’t want to give it up. When Ida finally did have sex it had the opposite effect that Wanda intended. Instead of distancing her from God, this experience helped her understand God better.

Andrew Greeley writes, “human love between a man and a woman is a sacrament, a hint, a revelation, a sign, a metaphor for Jesus’ love for His Church and for God’s love for His people.[4]” Ida’s relationship with Feliks helped her understand this desire of God for God’s people. Where Ida had previously accepted her life in the convent because she didn’t know any thing else, now she understood how deeply God loved her.

Though Ida’s final destination is not known, I believe it is reasonable to assume that she is returning, if not to the same convent, then to the Church and the vows she delayed. Where once she viewed her role as a nun with timidity, she now walks with confidence. Confident that anything she might give up in her vows is incomparable with the love of God for his people.

[1] Her nakedness is important in that she has been stripped bare, and must decide which identity to clothe herself in. A previous scene shows that even while bathing, the nuns at the convent are still partially clothed making this nakedness all the more revealing.

[2] “Ryszard Lenczewski.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.

[3] Greeley, Andrew M. The Catholic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 49

[4] Greely 56

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