Posted on 26. Sep, 2014 by in Nuns, Pilgrimage, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism

It is 1962, and Anna is about to take her final vows in the convent where she was left as an orphan baby in 1945 by persons unknown. But Anna has one surviving relative, and the Mother Superior – who has clearly guessed more about Anna’s background than she admits – insists that she contact this woman before she makes the irrevocable decision. The relative turns out to be her aunt, Wanda Gruz, tremendously played by Agata Kulesza – a worldly, hard-drinking woman who lives on her own. “They didn’t tell you who I am – and what I do?” she asks, receiving Ida in her dressing room, smoking, while a gentleman caller makes his exit off-camera. Pawlikowski allows us to jump to conclusions about Wanda, and then jump back: she is actually a magistrate and state zealot. Bleary, boozy Wanda reveals the truth to her niece: Anna’s name was originally Ida Lebenstein, and she is Jewish. Wanda proposes they go on a road trip together to discover what became of Ida’s parents during the war.
Though it is known that like most, if not all Jews in the area, Ida’s parents were killed during the war, the road trip becomes a quest for Ida to discover things about the parents she never knew, and a pilgrimage to see the people and places with which they were associated before they died. One such place was a farmhouse which was in the hands of new owners, beneficiaries of the the former Nazi regime, occupying property previously legitimately owned by Jews who had been killed. When Ida and Wanda visit the house, they get to see a stained-glass window which had been made by Roza, Ida’s deceased mother. Such things are all Ida has of her parents, and Aunt Wanda fulfills her duty in telling Ida the stories of her parents and showing Ida the few visual and physical objects associated with her deceased parents left behind in the world while chaperoning her through situations which had the potential to compromise her status of innocence and purity. One such situation is when they pick up a hitchhiking saxophonist, a nice young man close to Ida’s age and thus an obvious potential love interest. They take him to his destination, stay for his gig, but only Wanda puts on a cocktail dress and attends the party at which he performs, while Ida has only her nun’s garb and gets to attend his rehearsal before the party and talk with him as things are being cleared away after the party, sleeping in between, while her aunt presumably drinks, dances, and flirts. Though there are some who characterize Ida’s exposure to her Aunt Wanda’s worldly ways, cynicism, and the sinning society in which she makes her life as “evil”, the girl’s religious superior was acting ethically in giving her a chance to see the secular world and hopefully make an informed decision as to whether she would live immersed in that society, or continue on her path to becoming a full-fledged nun.
The new owners of Ida’s parents’ old property, initially hostile to the pair, come to put their trust in Ida’s postulant nun’s habit and obvious innocence when they agree to disclose the location of her parents’ grave in return for Ida ceding any claims to their ill-gotten house. Ida agrees to this, and the grave is located and dug up, a metaphor for the “digging up the past” which occurs during Ida’s relationship with Wanda and their journey together. It is made clear during the course of the journey and Wanda’s forging of a relationship with Ida that this kind of digging up of the past soon digs up people living among them remaining unpunished who should have perhaps been punished for their complicity with the Nazi agenda for the murder and dispossession of the Jewish population.
The new Soviet administrators of Poland prefer to look the other way concerning such issues, but they are clearly an emotional burden and a failed mission for Wanda. However, it is Ida who is the more personal and direct recipient of tragedy in the context of Holocaust-related events associated with the war: she discovers that she is the sole survivor of her immediate family, and only because as a tiny baby, and as a girl, she didn’t appear Jewish, while another of her family arbitrarily met his death because he did: “the boy was dark, and circumcised”. Thus, she was given to a priest, who then presumably had her placed in the Catholic orphanage.
After Ida returns to the convent, Wanda commits suicide, leaping from her apartment window, seemingly on an impulse. (Uncharacteristic of most suicides, she doesn’t seem to have left a note.) Evidently, Ida gets notified of Wanda’s death, and soon returns, presumably to attend Wanda’s funeral. Ida stays in Wanda’s apartment, tries on one of her dresses, her high-heeled pumps, and other accessories, including one of her cough-inducing cigarettes. She reunites (and predictably sleeps with) the meet-cute musician, explaining that she didn’t go through with taking her (final) vows.
Propelling this movie, seemingly deliberately gloomy throughout, into the realm of fantasies and happy endings, the sax player seems able and willing to marry Ida afterwards, and talks up a future of married bliss.

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