A respectable and due measure of column inches has been devoted to Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film, Ida, but as the director himself has intimated, much of it has concentrated on certain obvious trappings – questions concerning anti-Semitism, Polish identity, Stalinism, and the Holocaust – at the expense of the film’s core affiliation: the detailing of a spiritual crisis; but more specifically, I believe, a crisis represented by some core dyadic pessimism that is crucially equivocal, and by the end of the film still unresolved, a puzzle, the resolution of which, if indeed there is one, residing if anywhere in the sibylline and nuanced musculature of Ida’s face as she makes her return to God in the closing frames. The ambiguity in question is initiated much earlier in the film, when her aunt Wanda disputes the legitimacy of a vow of chastity from someone who has not first tasted what it is that’s being renounced, a sacrificer who does not know what it is she’s sacrificing. The history of Ida, then, is not primarily that of war and intolerance and nations, but one that “divides itself in two: a former time when people felt pulled towards the vibrant nothingness of divinity and now,1 when the nothingness of the world is empty of the divine spirit.”2
While on the road to Piaski, there is the following exchange:
Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?
About carnal love?
That’s a shame. You should try … Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours.
Ida smiles and we wonder does she know already how “[s]exual orgasm pales beside the saints’ ecstatic trance.”3 However, any such certainty must be presumed incomplete, for when Ida returns to the convent after her enforced absence, during which time she has discovered her Jewish origins and the details of the murder and the remains of her parents and cousin, she postpones her vows, claiming that she is not yet ready and asking forgiveness for the deficit in her spiritual provision. But minutes later we discover Wanda ready for a different but not unconnected form of commitment, when by means of auto-defenestration, she nonchalantly suicides. In order to take care of her aunt’s affairs and attend her funeral, Ida leaves the convent once again, moving into Wanda’s home for the duration of these events. Early on in her stay at the apartment, Ida, wearing a dress and intoxicated on her aunt’s liquor, entwines herself in a set of net curtains hanging from the same window her aunt had exited, spinning in a haze until dropping to the floor, taking the curtains with her. And so we see that no amount of past can rectify the “anonymous hum of ‘dying’ [when] in all times we all die like the flies that autumn forces indoors, into rooms where they circle blindly in an immobile dizziness, suddenly dotting the walls with their mindless death”4 – even when this mode of death is inverted (Wanda jumping out) and the death itself overtly mindful (Wanda more than cognizant of the sickness of living). With the funeral over, Ida seeks out Lis, a saxophonist she’d befriended in Szydłów during her road trip, returning to the apartment with him, with the express intention we imagine of sampling what those vows might ultimately deny her. As she lies on the bed in some kind of postcoital trance (“not thinking”), they discuss in the sparsest terms what a future together might involve:
We’re off to Gdańsk to do some gigs. Wanna come? Ever been to the seaside?
I haven’t been anywhere.
Come along, then… You’ll listen to us play, we’ll walk on the beach.
Then we’ll buy a dog … Get married, have children … Get a house.
The usual hassles. Life.
Before Lis delivers his last line, the last line of the film (“The usual hassles. Life.”), Ida smiles, and we cannot tell if the smile is one fused with a naïve joy at these collaborative imaginings or instead is one of gentle condescension. And it’s the same ambiguous smile we saw when Wanda first broached the subject of her sacrifice, for she is referencing her behavior, contextualizing it with something greater than two naked bodies on a bed. The repeated question “And then?” has elements of both childlike curiosity and of an unswerving pessimism bent on drawing out life’s empty core, on separating it from the fleeting and aimless distractions in which it obscures itself, out where it can be seen and sickened over, the abyss, that mystery “reserved for mortals. But” as Blanchot tells us, “it is not only the empty abyss; it is the savage and eternally living deep from which the gods are preserved, […] the place where light tests itself most severely,”5 and Ida is such light, so that when she leaves early the next morning dressed in her novitiate’s apparel to return to the convent, we do not know if it’s the result of her having answered her aunt’s call to feel the weight of her sacrifice, turning her back on a life she desires to live, a life with Lis, their prospective children, their animals, their home, and so deepening her suffering and thereby her communion with God; or whether, having seen what life is, the puerility of its preoccupations and comforts, it is the transcendent nothingness, of the convent and of God and of servitude and of sanctified suffering, that becomes once again Ida’s home and consolation and meaning, for “[w]hat is the void if not a dream of pain that has not come true?”6
Ida returns to the convent on foot, and the world speeds past her in the opposite direction, in the shape of vehicles on the road, as she slowly returns to either a state in which she will feel its absence like a wound, or else one in which she will shut out its futility forever; and whatever the resolution, if any, the certainty we have is that the world to Ida “is nothing but a place in which we exercise our sadness.”7 Or perhaps there is still another potential level of pessimistic intrigue, for conceivably in finding the succour of the world wanting, she has in fact unravelled the former rigour of her forfeiture, when she’d had only her imagination to furnish the vows of what she was renouncing in favour of God, since “[i]maginary pains are by far the most real we suffer.”8 And to trade a great pain for a lesser one is no way to seek proximity with God.
It is Wanda who tells us that “God is everywhere,” but then Ida in her own words has not “been anywhere,” so that the God she finds or seeks or knows is the one that’s never found, and whichever horn of this dyadic ambivalence it is that punctures her, she can at least maybe “thank God the world is not God.”9
- That the “now” of the film is 1961 is not merely due to a convenience of politics, but is symbolic also of all such promises of newness. [↩]
- E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 6. [↩]
- Cioran, Tears and Saints, 19. [↩]
- Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 124. [↩]
- Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 275-6. [↩]
- Cioran, Tears and Saints, 104. [↩]
- Cioran, Tears and Saints, 104. [↩]
- E. M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born (Arcade Publishing, 1998), 52. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, Sufficient unto the Day: Sermones Contra Solicitudinem (Schism Press, 2014), 11. [↩]