Although exquisitely photographed in black-and-white, this biopic of the little-known 20th-century Polish-Roma poet Bronislawa Wajs, known as “Papusza,” unfolds in time-skipping, dramatically underwhelming vignettes. Like dipping at random into an old picture book, the nonlinear storytelling proves more confusing than gripping, while the tragic title character comes off as passive and remote. With its elaborate period production design and scores of Roma extras, the latest film from writer-helmers Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze (“My Nikifor”) is perhaps most interesting for the picture it provides of the gypsy community from which Papusza hailed. Further fest travel is guaranteed.
The nomadic Roma clans that crisscrossed Poland and Lithuania in horse-drawn caravans in the early 1900s repped a closed community. Consorting with the gadjo (non-Roma) for reasons other than trade was considered unclean, although those with the surname Wajs, known for their musical ability, at one time toured the great courts of Europe with their harps.
Even from her birth, Papusza (which means “doll” in the Romani language) was deemed different. A spirit predicted that she would bring either great honor or great shame to her people. As the film presents it, she essentially did both.
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As a young girl, she defies her family’s wishes and learns to read and write at a time when gypsy literacy is rare. We see her steal a chicken and present it to a Jewish storekeeper in return for lessons. Although her family beats her and burns her books, she continues to read in secret. Later, her transgressions against the norms of her community extract an even greater price.
By the time Papsuza (Jowita Budnik) meets on-the-lam poet Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki) in 1949, she has been been unhappily married to her step-uncle, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), for more than a quarter-century. Ficowski travels with the Wajs caravan for nearly two years, learning the Romani language and the gypsy way of life. He is struck by the natural lyricism of the songs Papusza sings by the campfire and encourages her to write them down.
When Ficowski returns to Warsaw in 1951, he translates and publishes some of Papsusza’s verses, riling the Roma community, which feels that her writings reveal their secrets. When Ficowski publishes his monograph “Polish Gypsies,” in which he reveals more about the beliefs and moral code of the Roma, Papsuza’s clan votes to cast her out.
Even with the events presented out of chronological order, it’s fascinating to get a sense of the Roma lifestyle between the world wars, before their forced settlement during the communist years. During the Holocaust, the Romas, like the Jews, were marked for extermination by the invading Germans, an experience dealt with by one of Papusza’s best-known songs. But the film ventures into the war years only briefly, and quite late into the running time.
Curiously for a picture about Polish poets, including the great Julian Tuwim (Andrzej Walden), we hear relatively little of their poetry. One exception is a vignette in which Papusza is brought to a state theater for a live performance of “Papusza’s Harps,” a symphonic opera by Jan Kanty Pawluskiewicz (the film’s composer), with a libretto in Romani sung by Elzbieta Towarnicka.
Tech package is first-rate.