Ida: faith and politics

Ida: faith and politics

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Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski: Ida leaves the convent

Ida is a film by the Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski, who now works in the UK. Pawlikowski’s quiet, slow-paced film, beautifully shot in monochrome, sets its story against the background of the darkest days in the recent history of his country.

There are two central characters, and at first we don’t really know who they are. In Poland in 1961, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun preparing to take her final vows in the convent where she was left as an orphan baby in 1945 by persons unknown. Before Ida makes her irrevocable decision the Mother Superior insists that she visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who turns out to be an abrasive, chain-smoking magistrate with a decided taste for alcohol and men.

While Wanda soon informs Anna that she is Jewish, born Ida Lebenstein, we begin to piece together something of Wanda’s background (her first words on meeting Anna are, ‘They didn’t tell you who I am – and what I do?’). In the aftermath of war and revolution, she was a Stalinist state prosecutor, and admits to having sent ‘enemies of the people’ to their death for the good of the revolution.

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Ida: Wanda and Anna embark on a road trip in search of the truth

Wanda proposes to Anna that they embark on a road trip together to discover what became of her parents during the war. As they get closer to the truth it becomes clear that, for her own reasons, Wanda herself has been dreading what they may find.

In many ways Wanda is the most interesting character in the film. Whilst Agata Trzebuchowska brings an intense stillness to her role and her face is beautifully photographed by Ryszard Lenczewski, Trzebuchowska’s performance rarely allows us to penetrate further than her watchful stare. But Agata Kulesza’s performance as Wanda is mesmerising.  As she questions the people who knew Ida’s parents in the war about their knowledge of the family’s destruction, she is both Stalinist interrogator and Jewish avenger. She raps on their doors with the force of one who has known no restraint on her authority.

Agata Kulesza as Wanda

Ida: Agata Kulesza as Wanda

But Wanda is a woman who has her own double burden of guilt to bear – the twin burdens of  Poland’s 20th century history you might say. In wartime, with the best intentions, she made a decision that had terrible personal consequences, while in communist postwar Poland, as ‘Red Wanda’, she destroyed others as a leading agent of the Stalinist regime. By 1961, beneath a tough veneer of bitterness and contempt she survives, helped by booze, sexual hunger,  and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.

The review of Ida in New Yorker magazine summarized in one stark paragraph the context against which this film’s story unfolds:

Between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost a fifth of its population, including three million Jews. In the two years after the war, Communists took over the government under the eyes of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Many Poles who were prominent in resisting the Nazis were accused of preposterous crimes; the independent-minded were shot or hanged. In the movie, none of this is stated, but all of it is built, so to speak, into the atmosphere: the country feels dead, the population sparse, the mood of ordinary conversations constrained by the sure knowledge that many who survived have committed acts of betrayal or indulged willful ignorance.

Ida is but one story from millions, then. While the Nazi occupation led to the murder of 3 million Polish Jews, and the killing of 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians, the number of of Stalinist victims following the Soviet invasion of Poland is estimated at 1.8 million, including the 21,000 Polish officers killed by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in the Katyn Forest. The most violent period of communist rule lasted until the death of Joseph Stalin in1953. During this time, the Polish communist regime led by President Boleslaw Bierut imprisoned or executed soldiers of the non-communist Home Army resistance, Catholic priests and communists who challenged the official line after show trials which even reached as far as Wladyslaw Gomulka, vice-president in the first post-war government.

In her book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Ann Applebaum notes the wide ranging nature of the repression, which embraced the Polish Women’s League, a group of volunteers set up to feed refugees in train stations; the Warsaw YMCA (closed down because of its large collection of jazz records which were smashed with hammers); pub owners, tobacco sellers, and barbers who ‘due to their regular contacts with the public were the primary disseminators of fascist propaganda’ and the Polish Boy Scouts (targeted because they had joined the Home Army during World War II).

Destroying Catholic church groups was regarded as a high priority and in 1950 Caritas, the Catholic charity, which operated orphanages and soup kitchens, was targeted for having connections to ‘aristocrats’ and Nazi sympathizers. 1950 was the year of the ‘war against religion’, in which a total of 123 Roman Catholic priests were jailed by the Department 5 of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Since the late 1940s, the department, led by interrogator Julia Brystiger, had specialized in the persecution of Polish religious figures.  Brystiger personally directed the operation to arrest and detain the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.

In a biography that echoes the story of Ida – but inverts it – interrogator Brystygier had been born to a Jewish family. Nicknamed ‘Bloody Luna’ by her victims, Brystygier left the Ministry of Public Security in 1956.  In 1975, at the age of 73, she converted to Catholicism. She died the same year.

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 Anna dances with the saxophonist Lis

On the road, Anna – ‘the little saint’ in Wanda’s estimation – is exposed to worldly wickedness by her aunt, happy to describe herself as a ‘slut’ and far from shy about her appetite for booze, cigarettes and men. A chance meeting with hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) offers temptation for Anna, who finds herself attracted to the handsome young man who introduces her to Coltrane’s ‘Naima’.

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Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna

If you go to the cinema to see Ida, before the film begins you will see a BBFC alert that constitutes a spoiler, warning of ‘ a suicide attempt’. It’s annoying because you can’t help but be affected by it as the narrative unfolds: who will it be? The last act of Pawlikowski’s film is concerned with the impact on the two women of what they learn at the end of their quest.  Ultimately, for both Wanda and Anna, it becomes a question of faith.  For Wanda, the faith she once had in the righteous justice she meted out for the Party has been shattered already, but what she learns in a forest piles even more guilt upon her shoulders.

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Moment of truth in the forest

Anna’s choice in some respects seems more puzzling. After sampling the temptations of sex, music, cigarettes and alcohol, she retreats from the wilderness she has found in her history and the society around her, reinforced in her faith.

Pawlikowski’s film looks as if it was made when it was set, and is deeply evocative of time and place. Beautifully photographed in monochrome by Ryszard Lenczewski and framed in classic 4×3 ratio, it echoes Polish films of the 1950s such as Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (indeed, there is a scene in the characters walk between white sheets hanging from a washing line that reminded me of the famous final scene in Wajda’s film). With its measured pace and slow cutting, you can also sense the influence of European directors of the sixties and early seventies such as Robert Bresson and François Truffaut.

The film’s monochrome cinematography and unusual framing which repeatedly places its characters at the bottom of the screen generates a powerful sense of characters isolated in a harsh, unyielding landscape, ravaged by war and haunted by unwanted memories. The weight of history bears down, forcing a coming to terms with the past and truth.


A tale of two villages: it could be a wonderful life

A tale of two villages: it could be a wonderful life

In Marinaleda unemployment does not exist. It is a collective project life, life for all

The path to utopia

Politicians and media whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. Savage welfare cuts while the super-rich live high on the hog.  Deepening inequality and zero-hours contracts.  Rapacious banks and untamed corporations. Corporate greed gouging the common weal.  In these austere times, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, one can easily become discouraged.  The joyous cacophony of community life in Bedford Falls can seem like a distant dream of the silver screen.

But wait: here’s a tale of two villages.  Real places, inhabited by real people who have taken a stand against profit and materialism, racism and fear.  Two villages.


Spain has been one of the countries hit hardest by the banking crash.  At around 26%, Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the EU (and youth unemployment is nearly double that figure). In the wake of Spain’s property crash, hundreds of thousands of homes have been repossessed and half a million families have been evicted since 2008.

But, in Marinaleda, in impoverished Andalusia, the story is different.  Unemployment is zero, with most of the villagers working for collectively-owned enterprises (growing food, building houses, working in shops, and running sporting, leisure and other basic services).  Everyone works a 35-hour work week and earns a monthly salary of €1,128, at a time when the minimum wage in Spain is €641 per month.  Many villagers rent a house of 90 square metres with a terrace for only €15 per month – a house that they have helped construct.  Much of the land on which food crops are grown and houses are built is collectivised – once an estate owned by the aristocratic Alba family and awarded to the village by the regional government after a decade of occupations, strikes and appeals.

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Sanchez Gordillo, Mayor of Marinaleda

For three decades Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has been Marinaleda’s mayor, after winning the mayoral election in April 1979 as a representative of the United Workers’ Collective, a communist farm workers’ organization that promotes government through popular assemblies and believes that Andalusia should be independent from Spain.  ‘I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian’, Sánchez Gordillo has said, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.  In 2013, he drew international media attention when he and a group of the villagers entered a supermarket and seized food, which they distributed to the area’s food banks – an action justified by Sánchez Gordillo with these words:

We’re doing something new here: we’re insisting that natural resources should be at the service of people, that they have a natural right to the land, and that land is not something to be marketed. Food should not be speculated with either. It is a basic human right.

Workers at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda

Workers at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda

Marinaleda is a village which has known terrible hardship in the past.  But today the villagers grow beans, artichokes, peppers and produce high-quality olive oil. The workers themselves control each phase of the production while the land belongs to the community as a whole. There is a collectively-owned cannery, olive mill, facilities for livestock and a farm store. Gordillo says:

We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word ‘peace ‘. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present.

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The village coat of arms: ‘utopia to peace’

Marinaleda, with some financial support from the Andalusian regional government, has been able to offer three things that much of Spain is desperately wanting: employment, affordable housing, and a more participatory democracy. ‘The most important thing we’ve done here is to struggle and obtain land through peaceful means, and to ensure that housing is a right, not a business, says Sánchez Gordillo. ‘And as a village we work together, discuss and collaborate together: that’s fundamental for any society, too.’

Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.
― Eduardo Galeano

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

The abandoned ship from which two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 near Riace


In another desperately poor part of Europe there is a village that has welcomed migrants with open arms.  Riace lies on a hill five miles inland from the coast of Calabria in the far south of Italy. Little more than two months ago, more than 300 African migrants drowned when their boat caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.  The tragedy resulted in many expressions of horror – from Italian politicians, the European Commission and the UN secretary general.  Pope Francis was appalled: ‘The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace. Let’s unite our efforts so that tragedies like this don’t happen again. Only a decisive collaboration of everyone can help and prevent them’.



In Riace, for more than a decade, the villagers have collaborated in opening their doors to migrants in a dramatic reversal of usual attitudes towards immigrants. Calabria is a poor part of Italy, where villages are dying as young people leave in search of work in the cities of the north.  So, after two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore in 1999 from their sinking boat on the coast near Riace, Domenico Lucano – another left-wing mayor – encouraged the Kurds to settle in his village replacing the people who had left and reversing his village’s decline.  Since then, more ‘people who come from the sea’, as locals put it, have been encouraged to settle in the village.

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Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection

Instead of watching the sea-borne migrants get packed off to one of Italy’s grim immigrant holding centres, Lucano  offered them houses in the village that had been abandoned as the local population dwindled. After all, he said, ‘My parents always taught me to welcome strangers’.

In the last few years, following the Riace model, five small villages, have joined to offer immigrants arriving from across the sea a warm welcome along with homes in empty buildings.  In Riace this October, the Guardian reporter found two men leading two donkeys pulling carts through the narrow streets: Riace’s eco-traditional refuse collection. One of the men was Italian, a man whose ancestors built the village a thousand years ago; the other an immigrant from Ghana who, with his wife and two sons made the dangerous crossing to Lampedusa.

Before immigrants like this arrived in Riace, buildings were empty and falling into disrepair; Riace was turning into a ghost town. But the migrants from Africa rebuilt them fro their families. Their presence meant that the village school, threatened with closure, stayed open as well.

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Riace’s school was able to stay open because of the immigrants’ children

The immigrants – from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan – do jobs that Italians no longer want to do: they look after old people, or work in the olive groves for the olive oil cooperative. A Somali has opened a restaurant, while others work as translators or in shops and workshops. One settler makes traditional Riace pottery decorated with fine coloured stripes – suggesting that immigration, rather than diluting local culture, can help the rural way of life and craft traditions to survive.

Riace neighbours

Riace neighbours

The financial aid that asylum-seekers receive also feeds the local economy because this money is mostly spent in local shops. Since these benefits often arrive late, Riace prints its own banknotes with pictures of Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Gandhi on them. You can buy groceries and clothes with this currency. Every so often the retailers cash in their Gandhis for real euros.  When Mayor Lucano ran for election he had a slogan: ‘The poorest people in the world will save Riace and we will save them.’

Perhaps one day the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, ‘Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.
– Eduardo Galeano

Riace sign village of welcome

The sign at the entrance to Riace reads ‘village of welcome’

Riace Mayor Lucano with Refugee Family.

The Mayor of Riace eats with a refugee family

These days – to return to the seasonal analogy of It’s a Wonderful Life – we all live in Pottersville.  But the example of  these two villages suggests we can live a different way, adhering to less selfish, less materialistic values, less beholden to private profit.  Some may regard extolling the example set by the villagers of Marinaleda and Riace as misguided utopianism.  But I know where I would rather live.

Il Volo (Flight)

This YouTube video is a clip from a Il Volo, documentary dedicated to Riace in 2009 by the German film director Wim Wenders (no subtitles, unfortunately). This explanation is from the Mubi website:

Wim Wenders’ film Il Volo (Flight) documents an admirable example of a welcome that began over 10 years ago in Calabria, when a group of Kurds settled down in Riace, on the Calabrian coast. The German director’s initial project, a seven-minute short from an original story by Eugenio Melloni, turned into a 32-minute hybrid of documentary and fiction after Wenders met a young Afghani refugee. Il Volo became a firsthand account, with Wenders’ off-camera narration, of immigration as a resource. ‘What was happening to these people was much more important than the fiction I was making,’ said Wenders, in Rome to present the film. Commissioned by the Calabria Region and co-produced with the local Film Commission and with support from the High Commissioner of the United Nations, the film was shot in 3D.

AFP news agency report on Riace

Follow link to open in YouTube

See also



It’s a Wonderful Life: previous posts