Papusza begins in a Polish Roma community in 1908, with a woman giving birth. The newborn baby girl, says a fortune teller, will live a momentous life, whether for good or bad no one could say. The film is a biopic of the poet Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987), usually known by her nickname “Papusza” (“doll”). Much of the film takes place in the aftermath of World War Two, in the late Forties to mid Fifties. By then, Papusza (played throughout the character's adulthood by Jowita Budnik) had married but had been unable to bear children. Unlike most Roma, she could read and write, having asked a Jewish woman to teach her when she was younger. She has secretly been writing poetry, which comes to the attention of Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), a gadjo (non-Roma) hiding in the community on the run from the police. Ficowski encourages Papusza to write, and draws on her expertise for a book he is writing on Polish Gypsies. When the book is published, Papusza's contributions are seen as a betrayal, and she is cast out from the community.
The film, written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze (their second feature as a team, following four solo big-screen features by him), jumps around in time: we have flashbacks to 1921, with a young Papusza, and 1939, World War II and Hitler's extermination of Gypsies. We also have a flashforwards to the 1970s, with an older Papusza released from prison – for stealing a chicken – because of a musical performance of her poetry. In a way,she fulfils both parts of the fortune teller's prophecy: greatness, but the price of it is isolation from her community and loneliness. You do have to pay attention to follow this, and some background knowledge may help: for example, a shot out of a window showing Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Sciences being built in the distance, beyond a vista of post-War rubble, places us in the early-to-mid 1950s.
There's no doubt this is a very well made film, intelligently directed, with themes of confinement and isolation often expressed by the placing of people and objects in the frame. It's beautifully shot in black and white (digitally-captured, for those who like to know these things) and the performances from the lead actors are solid. It holds the interest over for two and a bit hours. But somehow Papusza falls short. Partly, this is because the unchronological structure doesn't pay off in the way it should in terms of emotional impact. Also, there's a sense that Papusza is a little at arm's length, that we are actually seeing her in the main through Ficowski's eyes. So, for all its qualities, it ends up a little too muted for its own good.