The Movie Waffler New Release Review (DVD) - PAPUSZA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review (DVD) - PAPUSZA

Biopic of Polish Roma poet Bronislawa Wajs.

Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze

Starring: Jowita Budnik, Zbigniew Walerys, Antoni Pawlicki

The world wobbles and laughs, but it is the poet’s will that makes sense of it all, and while Papusza is a film that impresses in most senses, especially in its joyous representation of the musical travelling community, at times this poet’s voice is lost among the noise.

What’s going on
Everything wobbles
That’s the world laughing 


Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze’s biopic, Papusza, based upon the life of Roma-Polish poet Bronislawa Wajs, more widely known as Papusza, is a film of stark oppositions. Set across the first half of the twentieth century, the film charts the history of Roma gypsies, as they travel across both Poland and also inexorably towards a modernity in which they have little place; the narrative striking disparities between the rich and the poor, community and prejudice, the past and the future. In the middle of these contrasts is little Bronislawa (Paloma Mirga), a sensitive girl who, in defiance of Roma accord, wants to learn to read and write in order to make sense of the world, and to express the keen lyricism budding beneath her heavy shawls and headscarf.

Funded in part by the Polish Film Board, Papusza makes the most of the country’s sumptuous landscape of dramatic forests and swelling rivers, with the setting framing the story as a monochrome fairy-tale. An early scene depicting Papusza’s birth is shot at night with the moon dominating the sky to outline three elder gypsy mothers, who mutter that the infant girl will bring either ‘pride or shame’ to the community. It is this tension between the idyllic, pastoral life of the Roma, and the world which surrounds them, that drives the film, drawing on historical detail to create acute impact. Prejudice (‘Just lying about, gypsy! Get a decent job!’ passers-by shout at the camp) eventually calcifies to legislation, as, by the middle of the century, regulations outlawing the Roma way encroach. We see statute enacted that essentially authorises bigotry against a vulnerable minority, culminating in violence, with police and ordinary people battering an ethnic minority (thank goodness that would never happen today, eh?). But while the film’s sympathies certainly lie with the gypsy brethren, Kos-Krauze and Krauze’s film is no hagiography of the lifestyle either: Papusza's tribe are beautifully realised as close and spirited, but also, crucially, shown to be stubborn and archaic. The choice to tell the story non-chronologically allows us to compare the arcadian peace of her childhood side by side with the complications of Papusza’s adult life (played by Jowita Budnik); the inability to provide for her ill child, her exploitation at the hands of her publishers and her eventual ostracism by the gypsy community.

Papusza’s banishment (which is alluded to from the off) comes about as a consequence of her poetry, which has been published in a volume that also includes apparent revelations about the clandestine Roma tradition. The idea that words are dangerous and powerful is an intoxicating idea that runs throughout the film; years before she burns her papers, Papusza painstakingly teaches herself to read with the help of a shopkeeper. As Papusza stumbles over words, the matriarchal baker kneads dough, explicating the film’s leit-motif of fecund female creativity. Violent and duplicitous, men are not to be trusted here - in a heart-breaking moment of heroism, the teenage Papusza scars her own face with a dagger to ward off the untoward attentions of her uncle. The film informs us that Roma do not distinguish between tomorrow and yesterday, with both intervals referred to as the same word ‘taisha’ in their tongue, and we pity poor Papusza, who is caught in a limbo of sorts, wanting to become who she is, but forced to abide by a tradition that refuses to adapt. Congruously, Papusza’s own poetry is caught in this contradiction too, focusing thematically upon the idea of Nostos, meaning a return to the past, for home (the word is the root for our own ‘nostalgia’). This aspect is perhaps where the film itself stumbles; although that this biopic exists is vindication of her lasting talents, alongside the invocation of Roma existence I would have liked to have seen more of the adult Papusza’s life as writer; her resurgence in the Sixties, for instance, the performances of her poems, apparently accompanied by her gypsy band.

The ephemeral lives of poets cement to mythology: cinematic reconstructions of poetic biographies are abundant (Bright Star, Barfly, Gothic), a trend that does not as generously extend to novelists or, indeed, film makers. Reading what is available of the poetry in rough translation, Papusza’s verse has a perfected simplicity; like Sappho or Byron, her poems have a lyrical immediacy, as pure and flowing as water streaming through the Białowieża forest. The poet is a conductor, channelling experience and emotion; we recognise in awe that they sing a song we can all share. Papusza is opulently filmed and carefully reconstructs an overlooked historical community, but it curiously lacks the catharsis of its subject’s work. The world wobbles and laughs, but it is the poet’s will that makes sense of it all, and while Papusza is a film that impresses in most senses, especially in its joyous representation of the musical travelling community, at times this poet’s voice is lost among the noise.