Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (Music Box Films, 2014)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeously shot film about the odyssey of a young Polish nun offers a sympathetic meditation on the mystery of faith, both corporate and personal.
On the verge of taking vows in the community of nuns that raised her as an orphan, 18-year-old postulant Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is suddenly ordered by Mother Superior to leave the convent and visit an unknown aunt. Travelling for the first time beyond the cloistered walls, the young novice encounters a modern and urban world both strange and wondrous. It is a world shaped and scarred by fascism, communism, and crimes against Jewish people.
Even more jolting is the news that the aspiring Catholic nun learns from her first encounter with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza): Anna’s real name is Ida, and she was born to Jewish parents who had been murdered near the end of the war.
The location of her birth parents’ graves is unknown, so Ida and her atheist, communist aunt set out on a journey to find them. It is an odyssey in which niece and aunt learn more about each other and the passions and wounds that drive them. As the niece-aunt relationship develops, Pawlikowski uncovers the cracks and fissures in believers both Catholic and communist. In the director’s unflinching but sympathetic eye there are unsettling similarities in the certitude of the parish priest and party official, each protecting their own, each failing to show sufficient compassion.
But it is the humanity with which the naïve Ida and broken Wanda are painted that makes this film so haunting. They offer us a glimpse of faith’s first blush, full of wonder and joy, and a shattering view of its decay into despair. These two deeply human faces invite us to believe in and care about the humanity of all that is frail and broken, offering us a faith that is always personal—even incarnational.
This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 9, page 42).