I am not thinking of the sacred as a lost category of experience, of which these films on religion present nostalgic traces. It can rather be understood, in French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms, as an ‘absolute excess of sense and of the passion of sense’ (sense here being a ‘horizon of meaningfulness’ prior to signification, not signified meaning). The sacred is the experience of being confronted with something uncomfortably present and material, but which refuses straightforward ‘reading’ or interpretation. It denotes a will towards, if not necessarily an achievement of, a ‘beyond’.
In Ida, this excess of sense appears in the extreme close-up of the sign of the cross Anna makes after reburying her parents. The traces of mud left on her habit mark a convergence of earthy detail and transcendent desire, which is even clearer in Pawlikowski’s shots of human faces. Very often, a face (typically Anna’s) will appear in the bottom corner of a shot, lit by light falling from a high window. The rest of the shot will be out of focus. There is a clear debt to religious painting here (a Telegraph reviewer suggested Vermeer; I thought of Zurbarán). The sparseness of the film’s dialogue and the length of these shots invite the spectator to, in a sense, look through the image of the face.
There is more than a hint of the devotional icon in Pawlikowski’s long takes: Mark Kermode writes that Anna, like the protagonist of Stations of the Cross, is a ‘statue made flesh’, with an ‘iconic gaze, staring beyond the surface’. Wheatley notes that shots like these show the extent to which Christianity’s forms and aesthetics have permeated European filmic language, and have formed a kind of ‘collective subconscious’. Pawlikowski’s camera does indeed linger on the statues in Anna’s convent. Yet there is more than cultural heritage at stake here: there is also, I would argue, the nature of our relation to film itself.
In this sense, it is important that Ida’s iconized faces are frequently only partially within the frame. Pawlikowski’s constant use of the edges of his shots highlights a basic concept of cinema, one familiar to every spectator: what goes on beyond the frame is at least as important as what lies within it. Crucially, this understanding requires a kind of faith on the part of the viewer: there are things we cannot see which are happening in the world of the film, so we always have to look beyond the surface. At the frame’s edge, cinematic and religious experience move somewhat closer. In Plate’s terms, all that divides the two is the degree of reality accorded to their re-created worlds by spectators or congregants. Quite how big this division is, how ‘real’ a religious painting or how ‘virtual’ a cinematic image, is a question not easily answered.
This ambiguity is at the heart of an unsettling reversal in Ida’s closing stages. For most of its duration, it seems as if the film is following a broadly conventional plot: a young nun is exposed to the charms and perils of the outside world, and eventually flees the convent, seduced by a jazz musician. Yet Anna does not stay with the man, after asking him what he sees in their future. His answer is mundane: getting married, having children. ‘The usual. Life.’ Faced with this, Anna puts her novice’s habit back on, and gets on the bus, apparently back to the convent.
In the film’s last shot, she walks down a lane at night, towards the camera and towards an unknown destination. This shot is accompanied by the only piece of extra-diegetic music in the film: Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (I cry out to you, Lord Jesus Christ). In its final moments, the film expresses within its own structure Anna’s longing for something beyond the everyday, beyond the seen (it is significant, in this sense, that the music continues over the closing credits). We do not know for sure where that search takes her. Rather than a ‘spiritual retreat’, then, this seems more of a lurch forward into darkness.
Some of the last decade’s films on religion end in death (Calvary and Of Gods and Men, for instance). But others face the future, however awkwardly. The Pope, at the end of Habemus Papam, admits his doubt and asks the faithful for their prayers; but what follows is unknown. Perhaps it is only a difference of phrasing, but where in these films Wheatley sees a continued, haunting presence of our religious past, for me their images form a question: how might religion be part of our future? The answer lies, inevitably, beyond the frame.
 S. Brent Plate. Religion and Film (Wallflower: 2008), vii.
 Alison Niemi. ‘Film as Religious Experience’, Critical Review vol. 15, 436.
 Jean-Luc Nancy. La Déclosion (Galilée: 2005) 14.
 Ian James. The New French Philosophy (Polity: 2012), 43.