The dirty streets of post-war Poland look on as an expectant mother shuffles through town to her encampment. She is a Romany whose people shun conventional settlements in favour of roaming the countryside as an intimate community. When she gives birth to her daughter Papusza she is warned that the girl will either bring great pride or great shame. From birth to old age the film follows this child as she grows from an illiterate gypsy girl into a published poet. She learns to read by swapping food for lessons, and writes songs about her sadness when she is married to a man as old as her father. Her talent is recognised by an established poet and he persuades her to publish her work. Yet tensions are high between the gypsies and the locals, and Papusza finds herself in the middle of this conflict; she must choose between her gypsy family and her skills valued only by the enemy.
Told in traditional black and white with very few cinematic frills, this naturalistic biopic portrays the life of one woman in all the gritty realism it deserves. Her relationship with the handsome young poet is the only happiness she attains, and it is their rapport that keeps the film from falling into bleakness entirely. Jowita Miondlikowska plays the heroine with a subtle complexity that makes her character more accessible to the audience, and benefits from an excellent supporting cast.
The tale is virtually unknown to Western audiences who may get lost in the confusing non-linear structure. It is a challenge to keep up with the jumbled plot when exposition is infrequent and certain characters are played by different actors. The slow-moving narrative does little to help the situation, with the few key events submerged in confusing vignettes that add little and distract from the story.
Despite the narrative flaws, it is impossible to ignore the skill with which the feature is filmed. The rugged landscape and peeling interiors are all equally worthy of Krzysztof Ptak and Wojciech Staron’s stunning cinematography, and every wrinkle in Papuzsa’s gradually ageing face stands out in the black and white frame.
Papusza is a valiant effort at a biopic but sadly falls short of doing justice to such a remarkable woman.
Papusza is released nationwide on 1st April 2016.
Watch the trailer for Papusza here: