Europe’s Romani people, commonly referred to as Gypsies, have been marginalized for so long that it’s rare for their stories to be included in mainstream cinema. It’s refreshing, then, to see Polish filmmakers Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze take on a Polish Romani group as their subject in Papusza, which portrays the life of poet Bronislawa Wajs, known as the eponymous Papusza, or Doll (Jowita Budnik). And though there’s little literal reading of poetry, the luxurious black-and-white cinematography of rich forests and sprawling fields comes across as the visual embodiment of the lyricism in Wajs’s work. The bioepic’s refined, languid look adds to the sense that the Romani, cast against austere snow-clad landscape, are the Earth’s eternal wanderers, its ultimate outcasts.
The film’s action begins as a young poet, Jerzy (Antoni Pawlicki), based on the real-life poet and translator Jerzy Ficowski, arrives at a Gypsy encampment. Jerzy is hiding from communist authorities and will spend some time in the community, enough to grasp its language and customs to eventually write about them, and to gleam Wajs’s literary talent. But as Wajs draws on his encouragement, and gains recognition in the country’s literary circles, her estrangement with the suspicious Romani deepens. Cast out as a traitor, she’s eventually driven to deny her talent.
Papusza is at its most enthralling in some of the flashbacks, where we glimpse the heroine as an agent of her own fate: a young Romani girl, she overcomes her shyness, and the ingrained superstitions of her mother who sees writing as a diabolical spell, to learn to read and write from a Jewish shopkeeper; the 15-year-old Wajs tries to repel an older man who ends up marrying her, and cuts her face on their wedding night in defiance. Wajs’s acclimation to the forced marital life isn’t dwelled on any further, and her adoption of the baby she finds during the war is a quick flashback, but this part of the story, at least, succeeds in showing Wajs as a formidable spirit. Ironically, as her literary success mounts, she exhibits less and less independence, which is mostly restricted to smoking cigarettes and the single passionate kiss that she plants on Jerzy’s lips.
Which isn’t to say that Papusza’s cast doesn’t overcome these shortcomings in characterization: Budnik is credible in her portrayal of anguish, and Zbigniew Walerys shines as Papusza’s drunken, somewhat despotic husband, whose grander aspirations as a musician are thwarted, and whose horizons don’t ultimately extend as far as Papusza’s, deepening his bitterness. The film also succeeds in using Wajs’s figure to paint a larger picture of the Romani. The romantic notion of carefree existence is complicated by incidents of hatred, brutal murder by the Nazis, which is relayed in flashbacks, and stringent, discriminatory laws imposed by the communists. Even more significant are the moments when the Romani debate their own fate: Faced with a crackdown, they must settle down, or defy the law and continue wandering. It’s here that Wajs’s inner conflicts arise, for she’s torn between preserving the nomadic life that has defined her and giving her son stability and education. Ultimately, though its scope is admirable and cinematography breathtaking, it’s hard not to feel that Papusza gets a bit caught between its ethnographic aspirations, painting a people in thick brushstrokes that are rich on lore, and relegates Wajs to an impressionist portrait.
BAM will present Papusza as part of their Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema series on February 23.