It’s her eyes. In Ida (Pawel Pawilkowski, 2014), the novitiate’s eyes do not drink in the world so much as courageously remain open as the world pours into them. In cinematography reminiscent of Bergman, Bresson, and Kurosawa for its exquisite use of light and what I can only call its distant intimacy, the camera peers at Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) looking. We see her eyes over and again, large disks that barely betray any distinction between pupil and iris so that they seem to be two caverns opened onto the perplexities of Socialist Poland. And also onto the perplexities of her own biography. An orphaned convent girl just learning that she was born neither Anna nor Christian, Ida slowly absorbs the horrible violence that enshrouds her survival and her almost-relationship with her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), whose perpetual cigarette smoke and drunken stupors function as objective correlates of that shrouding history. Ida looks through the smoke and booze, or better, she looks aside from them, in what (riffing off of Berlant’s “juxtapolitical”) we might call a “juxtareligious” gaze. I cannot find a still of the very opening of the film, when Anna is millimeters away from the face of a statue of Jesus, an unblinking face that she (re)paints unblinkingly, as if her very relationship with God hinges on the intensity of her own gaze. This shot (below) is importantly the same and different; she is here staring openly to receive the latest offering of the world–this time the alto sax player, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), with whom any relationship must be framed (as here in the mirror) as partial at best.
The juxtareligious gaze is silent and inquisitive, neither submissive nor assertive. Anna-Ida is “taking as long as necessary”, as her Mother Superior mandates, not to judge the world or see God in the world, but simply to see, to see to the side of–not from but not without–her core constitutive Catholic formation. Most of the film is shot in medium shots and close-ups, grouping the protagonists and other humans in portraiture-like arrangements (think Hopper as much as Rembrandt) with the occasional long shot provided almost as the relief of space more than as an establishing of scenario. Most of the film is shot in depth, so much so that when Ida is blurred out behind Wanda in the apartment complex, the effect is almost to remind me that this is a film and not a series of paintings. A few extreme long shots form the exceptions to filming within the human ambit. Two of these are high-angled and all of them seem to me to highlight the pathetically puny stature and consequence of humanity vis-à-vis the hugeness of God, the gaze of eternity that absorbs more than Ida’s own two disks, and redeems what it sees.
That Ida’s gaze is neither submissive nor assertive does not compute to Ida herself avoiding this dichotomy. Yes, she acts and submits…and acts. I warrant the final sequence will generate ink enough without my spoiling it here with analysis. Suffice it to say that the power of this sequence, too, is in the difference of the gaze of both camera and girl. Perhaps for those who have gazed long into eternity, the offer of “you know, life,” is not quite enough.