The new Polish film Ida begins in reverence and ends somewhere less obsequious, if still truthful. It’s the story of a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who must reconcile with her past before making the vow that will decide her future. Among other things, her struggle allows for a reconsideration of what Paul’s letter to the Galatians might mean in our modern age.
Anna, the nun, is played by Agata Trzebuchowska, whose solemn, often expressionless face is one of the many elements that bring to mind the masterful religious dramas of director Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest). The movie - this one directed by Pawel Pawlikowski - opens with a quiet sequence of Anna touching up the paint on the face of a statue of Jesus. It’s an austere montage, anchored on the image of Anna’s intent visage only inches away from that of the statue. Whose face is she gazing into? And how might that face mirror her own?
Before taking her vows, Anna is told by her superiors to visit the aunt she never knew she had, a sophisticated judge for the socialist government. A culture clash ensues – partly because the aunt (Agata Kulesza) favors jazz, men and booze, and partly because she reveals secrets that will drastically redefine who Anna is and what she believes.
Ida is very much concerned with lines of identity, and for good reason. It is set in a time and place – post-World War II Poland – in which communities are reconstructing themselves in the shadow of the Holocaust. And so when it’s revealed – spoiler alert! – that Anna was born to Jewish parents who died as part of their village’s purge, she must put this into the context of her own identity as a follower of Christ.
Galatians was the portion of Scripture that first came to mind as Ida unfolded. Paul’s letter is adamant about the obliteration of social, ethnic and gender divisions within the community of believers. In Galatians 3:28, he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Anna is something of an interloper here - a stealth believer.
G. Walter Hansen’s commentary on Galatians emphasizes how jarring this pronouncement must have been. “In the old set of relationships under the law, Jews were the children of God and Gentiles were sinners (see 2:15),” Hansen writes. “But now Gentile Christians are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. This must have been a shocking declaration for a Jew to hear.”
This scenario is somewhat flipped in Ida. Here the Jewish characters are “outside” of the church, sometimes painfully so. There’s a heartbreaking scene between Anna and a village priest who proudly says he’s served the community for years. When Anna asks him if he remembers anyone by the name of her birth parents, he shamefully says no. Anna is something of an interloper here. She’s a stealth believer - Jewish by birth yet Christ’s spiritual heir.
This is something like what Paul envisioned for the church. As Hansen writes about Galatians, “Equality in Christ is the starting point for all truly biblical social ethics. The church that does not express this equality and unity in Christ in its life and ministry is not faithful to the gospel. …All the divisions and prejudices that matter so much in the world are abolished in Christ.”
In Ida, this vision is not fulfilled. The exhuming of the past proves to be more than Anna’s aunt can bear. Christians like the priest not only deny the existence of their Jewish neighbors; they’ve also usurped their property in the war’s aftermath. Yet there is still Anna, offering a glimmer of Galatians. Ida is a circular movie, one that begins in that letter, travels through the horrific history of World War II and comes back to Paul’s inclusive words. By the end, the movie rightly frames Anna within her true identity: neither Jew nor Gentile, but child of God.