Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Personal Selflessness of Ida Lebenstein

by Drew Martin
Last night I saw the Polish film Ida, which is about a young lady named Ida Lebenstein (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) who was orphaned, and then raised in a convent. She is told she has an aunt whom she should visit before taking her vows to become a nun. The aunt, a bad ass communist state prosecutor, informs her they are Jewish and takes her to the house in which she lived as an infant. The tenants are the Polish Catholic family that hid and fed Ida's family during WWII but then murdered Ida's mom with her aunt's toddler son, and buried them in the woods when they understood that they too would be killed by the Nazis if they were discovered to be hiding Jews. The aunt had left her son to go off and fight, and young Ida was saved because she could pass as a gentile, whereas her cousin was darker and circumcised. The same man that killed her mother, took Ida to the convent.

The story unfolds along this narrative, and while this is not a movie review, I do want to point out two art-related moments that I found interesting. The first is the very opening scene. We see Ida intently working on a sculptural object (pictured top). With its long hair, the piece could be a self portrait, but it turns out she is putting the finishing touches on a restored Christ statue, which she and other nuns-to-be then carry out to the convent yard and place on a pedestal in a crater-like ring. This play on what might be personal that is actually selfless is a theme throughout the film. Ida's exposure to the lives of others who are out for personal satisfaction ends up strengthening her Christian faith.

The second artsy scene is regarding Ida's mom, Róża (Rose). The aunt tells Ida that her mom was quite artistic, and once she even made a stained glass window for the cows so they would be happy. While visiting the home, which the family that killed her mom then occupied, Ida wanders into the cow shed and sees the window (pictured second from top). Ida is a black and white film so we never see the window in full color but it works not only as a symbol of her creative mom, but also alludes to her own religious calling. In a way this moment is a kind of a return to the manger scene from which she went out into the world and led a Christian life.