The prospect of a Polish movie with the title ‘Time to Die’ doesn’t immediately fill one with expectations of a fun-packed two hours. Fortunately it’s nowhere near as grim and depressing an experience as the title and pedigree might suggest. Although Dorota Kedzierzawska’s October 2007 film has been around for a few months now I only got around to watching it this weekend. It tells the story of Aniela (Danuta Szaflarska), an elderly woman who lives in a rambling old house with her slightly loony Collie dog. Aniela is beset by the usual problems of the elderly and under-appreciated; her son (Krzysztof Globisz) is an unkempt loser married to a nagging harridan, her granddaughter (Patrycja Szewczyk) is an overweight ten-year-old who don’t speak proper, and the neighbourhood hooligans seize every opportunity to poke their tongues out, nick stuff, or mess around in her overgrown yard. On top of these run-of-the mill trails Aniela’s ghastly nouveau riche neighbour wants her out so that he can knock her derelict pile down and expand his own suburban palace.
Danute Szaflarska as Aniela: Do not mess with this grandma
The opening scene of the film has the, apparently, frail and timid Aniela visiting a doctor’s office. Treated with brusque disrespect by the harridan of a doctor Aniela promptly tells her to “Kiss my ass” and walks out. In other words this is an old bird not to be messed with. She’s got ‘spirit’ in a rather cliched old-woman-with-an-attitude kind of way. It has to be said that, although crusty-with-spirit films are fairly common in the west, they are rare in Poland where the first flush of trend-driven ‘yoof’ culture has not yet worn off. Non-Polish readers should also be made aware that the star, 92-year-old Danuta Szaflarska, is a reverently respected pillar of Polish cinema. This is part of the joke of course.
Much of the film has Aniela cooped up inside her moodily photographed home (the entire movie is shot in black and white) peering through its multitude of windows at the hostile world outside. She spies on the ghastly neighbour and his bimbo wife, watches the urchin inmates of the nearby drop-in center, and generally stares off into space all the while keeping up a querulous commentary for the benefit of her dotty dog. The dog, Phila, is one of the highlights of the movie; one of those highly-intelligent and highly-strung animals that whines and ruffs in a conversational manner and has strange secret obsessions and motivations all of its own. The house itself is also a highlight; a beautiful wooden structure wreathed in casement windows set among whispering pines. There’s lots of arty nonsense with fractured views through window facets that is supposed to suggest her bifurcated state of mind as she looks out into the present and inwards into the past. And yes, there are slow-motion soft-focus scenes in which the young Aniela is seen dancing in the moonlight with her handsome beau or playing with her young son. I for one would have been happier if these had been implied rather than spoon fed like dollops of treacle.
Aniela’s house. I want one, simple as that.
Time to Die winds up to a climax that will come as no surprise to anyone who takes the trouble to notice the title, but not before Aniela comes to terms in some way with the difficulties she faces and makes peace with those who deserve to have peace made with them. Dry eyes were not to be found in this house.
Final verdict: Thoughtful and surprisingly light-hearted, but unlikely to set pulses racing.