Review: PAPUSZA Is A Beautifully Photographed, Pensive Depiction Of A Life Scarred By Success

Patryk Czekaj, Contributing Writer
Leading a nomadic lifestyle since their early days, Romani people never found a place they could truly call home. Since early ages they migrated to different regions all around the world in search of a nation that would consider them equal. However, due to the fact that citizens of many different countries have always had a prejudice against that specific ethnic group, they've rarely tried to blend in socially and culturally and were often treated as sort of intruders, whose presence was nothing more than a nuisance.

One of many countries that Roms settled down in during the turbulent 20th century was Poland. Though they were still thought of as a minority, the treatment they've experienced wasn't as rough as in other parts of the globe and some of them have soon decided to stay.

To outsiders Romani heritage is a huge mystery. Given that Roms treat their culture as a precious and holy treasure, it's never been properly discovered and those few lucky individuals, who had a chance to understand the life of this rich, albeit incomprehensible, civilization later tried to pass on the information to future generations.

One of the most influential duets in the history of Polish cinematography, Janusz Krauze and his wife Joanna Kos-Krauze, take roles of both the narrators of the story and curators of a broad collection of Romani customs.

Being a film based on true events, Papusza gives a curious and penetrating insight into the lives of a group of Polish Roms. One of the main characters in the film is Jerzy Ficowski (played by Anotoni Pawlicki), a Polish poet and translator, who celebrated Poland's Roma culture.

As the film explains he begins traveling with Roms across the country after World War II. During that journey he gets acquainted with a modest and placid girl named Bronislawa Wajs, known as Papusza (Doll). This seemingly shy and simple woman becomes Jerzy's object of interest, until he realizes that she's already married to her step-uncle Dionizy (Zbigniew Walerys), a violent and close-minded brute.

On one quiet evening near the campfire Jerzy hears Papusza reciting a poem, and to his great surprise she proclaims it as her own. He encourages Papusza to write more and to send him everything after he comes back to Warsaw. Yet the backwardness that governs that closed community holds her back from spreading the wings. Even the ability to read and write is condemned and those, who don't follow strict orders, are quickly judged and severely punished.

As time goes by, with the help of a great Polish poet Julian Tuwim (Andrzej Walden) Papusza's name starts to gain a lot of attention in the art world, a situation that immediately infuriates the whole Roma community. Their anger culminates when Jerzy announces a book that's supposed to reveal many unknown facts from the lives of those interesting people.

What Papusza undergoes is nothing short of hell on Earth. She's subject to humiliation, insults and rejection, even from her son. Figuratively speaking, it's as if though she was a witch and her poems witchcraft, wreaking havoc and eventually sending the poor woman to her doom. Because of all the pressure and hatred Papusza ultimately looses her mind and wholeheartedly regrets ever writing a single word, saying 'If I hadn't learned to read and write, I would've been happy'.

Although the movie serves its purpose as a biographical piece it doesn't put enough focus on the titular character, thus failing to reveal the complexity of a weary, troubled, emotionally imbalanced figure and a person that forever changed the way we perceive Romani culture. What we get is a rather vague description of a poet, who had to deal with a lot of criticism from the only people she could ever consider family. The character of Papusza is rarely in the foreground. That oversight gives an impression that she's there only to communicate a valuable message about Roms in general, not about the real Papusza herself. The fact that the film sparsely refers to Papusza's poetry also undermines her actual contribution to the literary world.

Papusza's presented through a series of vignettes, interwoven into a non-linear timeline, albeit not a confusing one. The directors deliberately wanted to leave out some of the elements of the story in order to explain them later on, while jumping through different periods of the protagonist's life.

Those vignettes wouldn't be as impressive if not for their spectacular visual side. The beautifully photographed scenes look as though they were taken straight out of a fairy tale, and the sharp black-and-white color palette gives them a deeply melancholic and mostly somber tone. Only the rhythmical sounds of a Romani orchestra somewhat livens up that immensely pensive mood.

Although it establishes a stunning, enticingly poetic ambience, the film also evokes a dramatic sense of sadness, while commemorating a poet, whose life was as unusual as her poetry.
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