“Mirror, mirror, on the wall… who’s the fairest of them all?”

In the famous fairy tale, that’s what the vain and wicked queen asks her own reflection. Nevertheless, when it comes to the women of pop culture, that seems to be the question that American moviegoers can’t stop asking. The more I watch the ways in which actresses become household names — making themselves a more popular subject than their characters — the more I see similarities between the Celebrity Factory and the lurid materialism of the beauty pageants I saw on television when I was a kid.

The program, like most beauty pageants, has its various phases, intended to show us each contestant’s personality, intelligence, talent, and — most importantly to many viewers and to the marketing campaign — their ability to strike sexy poses in a swimsuit. And as the program goes on, it begins to feel like Apple revealing all of the various functions of a new product, or like masters asking dogs to perform tricks at a dog show and rewarding them for the ways in which they meet our expectations.

The Fame and Fortune Game in Hollywood requires up-and-coming actresses — especially those who start young — to jump through various hoops: Can they seduce us? Can they make us laugh? Can they make us cry? Are they willing to get naked onscreen? (That last one is a rite of passage that shows us, apparently, whether or not actresses are really serious, really mature, really ready for adult roles. We often reward performances like these with Oscars.)

This routine has everything to do with baiting moviegoers into a sort of goddess worship, and very little to do with what beauty is really about. Character is reduced to a superficial scan. The curves get the most attention. Mystery is quickly erased. Movie by movie, actresses throw themselves into a long-term striptease. For every dignified Cate Blanchett there are a dozen Amanda Seyfrieds, Dakota Fannings, and Lindsay Lohans volunteering to be our next popular Lolita, increasing the cultural appetite for reading about the celebrities themselves rather than caring much to discuss the characters they’ve played or the choices those characters make.

Thus, we distort the ways in which young men learn to see, hear, understand, and love the women in the world around them. And we injure the way young women are taught to see and appreciate themselves.

So I’ve decided to host a pageant of my own. Who can invite us to a fuller, healthier, holier view of women? Who might those contestants be?

  • They’ll be characters, not celebrities.
  • They’ll be complicated, not superficial.
  • They’ll have integrity; they won’t go out of their way to win our love.
  • They’ll direct us to dwell on something larger than themselves instead of showing off to become the center of our attention.

Welcome to the 2014 Looking Closer Beauty Pageant.

So far this year, I’ve found four compelling contestants. And it should come as no surprise that these characters appear in movies that have barely made a blip at the box office.

Our first contestant comes from Poland.

Isn’t she beautiful in her nun’s habit, filmed in pristine black and white as she paints a statue of Jesus and helps carry it out of the convent into the snow?

Aren’t her eyes dark and strange?

Why is she so soft-spoken?

This is Anna. She’s eighteen years old, and she wants to present herself to Jesus as a bride.

But Anna’s about to discover that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and her heritage is not what she hought. Anna was raised as an orphan, without any knowledge of her family. And her Mother Superior wants her to go out into the world, discover the secrets of her past, reckon with the trouble that those revelations will cause her, and then decide about her future. When she discovers all that has been kept from her, will she still love God? Will she even believe in him anymore? She’ll have to ask herself how the God she believes in could possibly let…

… no, wait. Stop. I shouldn’t say much more about Anna’s past. Better to let you make discoveries with her along the way.

I suspect that you will ask, as I’m still asking, what in the world the Mother Superior was thinking. Should those who seek God be forced to face life’s greatest horrors before declaring their love for God? Seems to me that the practice of faith is what can prepare a person to wrestle with those questions. That’s just one of several confounding questions that keep the heart of this film anxiously beating.

Yes, Anna’s journey is about facing the darkness. But it’s also about facing temptations and discovering the glories of a sensual world that a novice must give up to become a nun. Even when she wears her habit, Anna is beautiful. And she’s likely to draw attention out there in the world. What will she do if she finds love? Will she still want to give everything up for a life of holiness in the convent? But how can she make a real sacrifice for God if she doesn’t know what she’s sacrificing?

How do you solve a problem like Anna?

You send her to meet Red Wanda.

“Red Wanda” is the nickname that was given to Anna’s Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) back when she served as as a zealous judge for the Communist Party, prosecuting enemies of the state with such ferocity that she was feared. Wanda lives with the burden of that reputation. She tries to find ways to escape her own painful secrets — in sex, in smoking, in drinking. It isn’t easy.

When the spiritual pilgrim finds her, Wanda becomes like Virgil, leading the naive young traveler down through Purgatory into a Hell of historical revelations. Less than 20 years after Stalin’s cruelty became common knowledge, Poland is torn between a new embrace of free-thinking Western culture and a sort of cultural post-traumatic stress disorder. How can you enjoy freedom when the ground beneath your feet is marred by the graves of your people? You have to wonder if Anna will ever find her way back out into the bright lights of the innocence she knew as a novice at the convent in those opening scenes.

So Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), is quite a rarity — a film about two fascinating women, each on a journey through darkness.

You’re unlikely to find any reviews of Ida that fail to mention Pawlikowski’s painterly visual style. Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski confine their images to a narrow 1.37 aspect ratio, which focuses and pressurizes the pictures. And yet, within that frame, they leave a lot of open space, so that shots press Anna against the sides of the frame or all the way to the bottom. She rarely ever stands fully before us front and center — sometimes we can only see the top part of her head. I found myself sensing just how off-center Anna must feel, how burdened and how small. Moreover, these big, bright open spaces seem to represent the unanswered questions Anna carries, or the unseen forces that are shaping her life, restricting her, or opening before her.

So it is an absolutely exhilarating sight when we finally see her set free from the habit and cautiously venturing out to discover who else she might be.

As Anna, actress Agata Trzebuchowska is one of the most arresting presences I’ve seen in a film since the rise of Binoche, Jacob, and Kieslowski’s other muse, Julie Delpy. Trzebuchowska’s quiet, observant demeanor is seductive and unsettling — not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s almost alien gaze in Under the Skin. I’m not sure how he did it — fancy contact lenses? — but Pawlikowski darkens Anna’s eyes in a way that is both  are very effective, even if it is a bit of a gimmick. Playing the worldly, reckless, embittered Aunt Wanda, Agata Kulesza is compelling in an entirely different way, and I’m left wishing I could have known more of her story.

Ida is most interesting in its resemblance to French films of the 1960s. Watching Anna, I was reminded of young Marie from Au hasard Balthazar, another dark-eyed girl with big questions, quiet passions, and unstable adolescent impulses. Pawlikowski crafts his film in vivid black and white with striking compositions — too striking, perhaps, as his images often draw too much attention to themselves. But I admire his ambitions, his embrace of silence, and his interest in communicating through imagery rather than just a script.

The film also explores the tension between the practice of religious faith and the freedom of secular society in a way that reminded me of Luis Bunuel’s dark comedy Simon of the Desert. In that film, a prophet is persuaded to come down from a pedestal and visit The World, symbolized by a jazz club. Anna will have encounters with jazz as well, and its sensuality will seem both a threat and a temptation.

I was also reminded of the way that Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cameras adored his leading ladies. And I’m not the only one. Check out Alissa Wilkinson’s review: She found echoes of Three Colors: Blue in this film — and I agree. I found echoes of Three Colors: Red, in which a young fashion model stumbles into the life of a retired judge who has taken to spying on his neighbors and punishing them for their sins. Here, Ida gets a taste of Wanda’s despair, and follows along, torn between desire and horror, as her aunt seeks to uncover the crimes of a killer.

But above all, I kept thinking of Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. In that film, Irene Jacob played a young woman who lives a passionate, musical life, unaware that she has something like a doppelganger, another self in the world who lives in a state of incompleteness, fragility, and insecurity. There’s even a shot of Anna resting her head against a window that strikes me as a direct allusion to Veronique. And before the film is over, Anna will have become a different version of herself. But which version will she choose? Which will give her a stronger sense of purpose and satisfaction in view of the abyss that has opened at her feet?

After my first viewing, I found myself frustrated by Anna’s inscrutability. On this descent from the rituals of the convent to the horrors and pleasures of the world, we only glimpse fleeting hints of what she’s actually thinking and feeling. That, along with the distraction of Pawlikowski’s startling compositions, kept me outside the movie looking in; I wasn’t drawn in to experience what Ida was experiencing. For all of the drama happening around her, she herself remains the most intriguing mystery of all.

And so I present to you — in a typical year of cinema where women play parts in stories that are really about men — a rare and wonderful exception… a movie about women and the challenges set before them.

Anna’s journey will leave her deeply conflicted about what she has seen, just as I feel rather conflicted about this movie. But Anna will never forget what she has seen; it will haunt her and challenge her to go on wrestling with questions great and terrible. And this movie is doing the same thing to me. It’s been three weeks, and I can’t stop thinking about her. I can’t wait to see Ida again.

Privacy Preference Center