Papusza: Karlovy Vary Review

It's a disjointed but rewarding literary biopic.

Polish husband-and-wife duo transform the troubled life of a celebrated gypsy poet into a ravishing visual poem.

KARLOVY VARY - Spanning most of the 20th century, this slow but ravishingly beautiful biopic commemorates the life and works of Bronislawa Wajs, the first publicly feted female poet from Poland’s travelling gypsy minority. More generally known by her nickname “Papusza” (“Doll”), Wajs survived Nazi invasion, Communist persecution and bitter excommunication from her Roma community. Premiered last week in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it earned a special mention from the jury, Papusza is sufficiently serious and visually absorbing to deserve further festival exposure. Outside Poland, it has theatrical potential with niche audiences nostalgic for the somber grativas of old-school Eastern Bloc art cinema.

The first film in nine years by the married writer-director duo Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, Papusza was clearly a labor of love. Shot in exquisite monochrome by Krzysztof Ptak and Wojciech Staron, every frame is a painterly masterclass in light and shadow. The mostly non-professional cast spent a year becoming fluent in the Polish Roma dialect. Early 20th century gypsy camps and Jewish shtetls were recreated in impressive detail. Hollywood make-up experts flew in to help with ageing Jowita Budnik, who plays Wajs across five decades of adulthood.

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Graced with a lively soundtrack and several stand-out musical interludes, the film nevertheless risks confusion with its non-linear structure, which zigzags through Papusza’s life, jumping back and forth to disconnected vignettes in different decades. It is left to the viewer to join the chronological dots between the fiery young gypsy girl forced into marriage with a domineering folk musician (Zbigniew Walerys), the elderly woman living in bleak poverty despite her literary fame, and the late-blooming poet who is excommunicated as “unclean” when she unwittingly breaks the Roma code of silence towards the non-Roma “gadjo” society.

Major events hover in the background, including two world wars and the forced settlement of gypsies during the Communist era, but barely a trace of historical or political context ever intrudes on this closed world. Only a handful of Papusza’s simple, folksy verses are quoted in the script, and nor is there much psychological insight into her character. Cursed for being self-educated and gifted by a fiercely patriarchal culture, her story becomes a kind of universal feminist fable, but low on personal detail or emotional warmth.

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Ultimately, Papusza is less of a literary biopic than a widescreen ensemble drama that recreates the lost, culturally rich world of Poland’s Roma community in the 20th century. Even if it undersells its elusive subject a little, it rewards the senses with an immersive, melancholy, sumptuous visual symphony.

Production companies: Argomedia, Polish Television, Canal + Poland, Studio Filmowe KADR

Producer:  Lambros Ziotas

Cast: Jowita Budnik, Zbigniew Walerys, Antoni Pawlicki

Directors: Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze,

Writers: Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze,

Cinematographers: Krzysztof Ptak, Wojcech Staron

Editor: Krzysztof Szpetmansky

Music: Jan Kanty Pawluskiewicz

International sales: New Europe Film Sales

Unrated, 131 minutes