Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (2013), is set in Poland in the winter of 1962. Anna is a young polish woman on the verge of taking her vows and becoming a catholic nun. Her mother superior lets her out into the world to let her see the alternative, to meet her family and give her a chance to decide whether this is what she really wants to do.
Orphaned as a child Anna’s only family is an aunt called Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an older woman who has seen something of life. We can see in her face that she has struggled, that she bears the scars of life in the lines on her skin, her listless eyes and the lifeless draggle of her hair. She smokes and drinks too much, she has meaningless sex with strangers in order to forget something she would rather she did not know. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) arrives on aunt Wanda’s doorstep in her hand-made overcoat carrying her world in a second-hand suitcase looking like an angel transported from another world, and blood would appear to be the only thing that binds them together.
As Wanda starts to fill in the blanks in Anna’s knowledge of her family, including that she was actually born a Jew and christened Ida, it gradually dawns on the girl that before she can decide whether she wants to become a nun she first has to discover who she really is. The two women set off in an old car on a journey, both real and metaphorical, and the film that has up to this point been a quietly beautiful story of mutual discovery segues into a road-movie with a dual purpose.
I won’t spoil the film for you by revealing the plot but I do need to mention that along the way Anna meets a young man called Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He is a musician, the saxophone player in a jazz group, and Anna dances to the music, she smokes a cigarette with him and ultimately they make love. Lying on the bed together in a rather dreary-looking room they are sprawled and turned away from each other and as he smokes Lis sketches out in a few words his idea of the future. His band are going to Gdansk to do some gigs and he asks her to come with them.
“You’ll listen to us play, we’ll walk on the beach…”
“And then,” Anna asks.
He lays down beside her and they smile.
“Then we’ll buy a dog…”
“And then?” Anna asks again, and it slowly dawns on Lis that they don’t have a future, or at least that their futures do not coincide, that she will go back to her convent and he will play jazz and the puppy will be left to run on the beach on its own.
Watching the film I thought this an elegantly profound moment and that question, “and then?” followed me for several days as I considered the beautiful simplicity of it juxtaposed with the complexity of the things it portrayed. Those two simple words of dialogue told us important things about Anna, about what was going on in her mind and what her future held in store for her and watching the young man struggle to comprehend these things told us why they needed to be said. I saw it as a comment on the trivial life Lis imagined for them versus the meaningful life of the devotedly religious woman and as a commentary on what modern life in general has become, an endless sequence of petty and banal activities we impose on ourselves to pass the time until we die.
After thinking about it for a while I tried the conversation the other way round and imagined Lis asking Anna, “What are you going to do tomorrow?”
“I shall get down on my knees and pray to God.”
“Oh, I shall probably pray some more.”
When viewed this way round we can see that the deep and profound question about the insignificant life the jazz musician envisaged is not really as profound or sincere as it at first appeared. The life Anna envisages for herself is not necessarily any more meaningful than his.
This reminded me of something my father said to me when I was around fifteen years old. He described a game of football as, “twenty-two grown men kicking a pig’s bladder into a string bag.” At the time it had struck me as amusing and clever but later I heard the world professional snooker champion Steve Davis describe snooker as, “poking balls off a table with a pointy stick,” and it quickly becomes obvious that almost any activity we choose to amuse ourselves with can be trivialised to some extent. Even most jobs are pointless in themselves and we only do them to earn shiny tokens we exchange for food, rent and running water. I actually spent ten years of my life tinkering about with Excel spreadsheets to add up every month how much money someone else was making. Anna’s apparently profound question turns out to be as superficial as the lives we all lead.
In 1850, Charles Dickens published a novel called David Copperfield. This is the rather simple story of a young man telling his own life story from a birth he is able to describe in rather implausible detail to… well, I’ll let you read it and find out how it ends. Along the way, David spends a few moments meditating about an imaginary scene involving a young lady of his acquaintance.
“What a picture rose before me of her sitting on the far-off shore, among the children like herself when she was innocent, listening to little voices such as might have called her Mother had she been a poor man’s wife; and to the great voice of the sea, with its eternal `Never more!’ ”
This line immediately reminded me of a poem by the American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe (1808 – 1849). The poem is called The Raven (1845), and it tells the story of a man working in his study late one night disturbed by thoughts of a recently deceased loved one. Then a raven comes pecking at his window. After accidentally letting the bird in the man asks it what its name is and the bird replies, “Nevermore.”
At first this seems to be a truly miraculous thing, a bird that can not only speak but answer questions. The man tries to convince himself that it cannot possibly be true and says that the bird will leave him tomorrow, “as my hopes have fled before.”
And the bird replies, “Nevermore.”
The man asks the bird several more questions, all of which are answered in the same way, and the reader is gradually invited to consider that the bird can in fact say only one thing, and that this word appears to answer the questions is nothing more than mere coincidence. So that just as with Anna’s “and then,” when repeated sufficiently often the deep and profound becomes commonplace and irrelevant.
Which in turn suggests that the meaning of words is not merely in the words themselves, but in the swirling vortex of context and personality within which the words are spoken. When Anna asked her lover, “and then?” it said something entirely different from what it meant when he asked her the same question. The raven’s, “nevermore,” meant something entirely different at the end of the poem to the meaning it had the first time the bird said it and that space that exists between those two opposite meanings is what authors are striving to uncover and expose and explore, because it is in the ambiguities and misunderstandings that inhabit that space that people are their most interesting, exciting, frightening, beguiling and attractive.
Which, if true, would seem to imply that we are most alive when only imperfectly understood, that to know someone means to quench their fire, even just a little bit. Knowing that a rainbow is merely a pattern of light refracting through raindrops makes it seem so much less magical than thinking of it as a bridge to another dimension, a portal to another world, and at its end lies mystical treasure beyond compare.