Hauntingly beautiful, shot in arresting black and white and set in 1960 in Poland, Ida, a film by Pawlikowski, is the story of a young orphaned novitiate named Anna sent to meet her only living relative, Wanda, before she takes her vows. The two, virtual strangers, embark upon a journey together to unearth the truth of who murdered their family during World War II and where their bodies were buried.
Images of desolate landscapes, dense jagged trees, depressed run-down Communist era buildings, and the sparseness of a convent pervade and bear down as the characters are left to inhabit a mere bottom third of the screen. As we join them for this heartwrenching investigative mission, a quest to fill the absence, a reparation or reclamation of what was shattered, we feel the weight, the gravity, the grief.
The horror of unimaginable violence, the unbearable guilt and sorrow; we feel the psychic emptiness of what must have been unimaginable atrocities. Winding their way through desolate country roads, with long protracted silence and prolonged close-ups, we are left to study Wanda's expressive face, vividly in anguish, caught in an aching silence. Her haunting words prior to departure resound: "What if you go there and discover there is no God?" We feel the absence in her, the "dead third," the meaninglessness wrought by what is unspeakable, "living with the absence of that which made life comprehensible" (Gerson, 2009). She is bereft and trapped in her own deadness.
Wanda numbs herself with alcohol and men. Hers is "a world in which psychic numbness is the balm against unbearable affects" (ibid). As the two get closer to unearthing the truth, Wanda quite literally runs off the road. Ida, as witness to the shadows of destruction, is on a path of unfolding identity in light of the horror of what became of the family she never knew. She is borne of them and yet not of their world. We find in Ida the legacy of absence. "Why am I not here?" Ida asks her family's executioner. This question seems to ask both the literal and also a profoundly existential question: Why does this world leave me feeling vacant? Although we see an opening in her, an attempt to step into the shoes of Wanda and of the world outside the convent, ultimately it has no meaning. Faith (the church) is a living third for Ida, giving her structure and meaning. For Ida, this third "serves the elemental function of solidifying an individual's sense of person, place, and purpose" (ibid). She has a home to return to in the convent.
Wanda tragically cannot reside in this world either and cannot find a path back to a "psychic aliveness." A difficult road to traverse, the journey cannot be a solitary one. As Gerson (2009) says, "We have learned that the presence of an other who can bear living with that which cannot be represented in words is what gives meaning both to life and to death."
Gerson, S (2009). When the third is dead: Memory, mourning, and witnessing in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90, 1341-1357.