Time to Die (Pora umierać, 2007)

Director/Screenwriter: Dorota Kędzierzawska

2008 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When one crosses the 50-yard-line of life, as I have, and the adults one grew up with leave this mortal coil one by one, thoughts of the end of life are inevitable. Will I still be able to remain independent, or will I be sick, feeble, or even lose my mind to dementia or Alzheimer’s? How will my younger family members regard and treat me? Will I lose my place in the stream of life before I die? How can I make my old age and death joyful and meaningful? For older movie enthusiasts, those rare films about the aged that avoid caricature and offer advice and comfort become the narratives we seek.

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Until yesterday, I thought the only working filmmaker with a real interest in the elderly was Paul Cox. He wrote A Woman’s Tale (1991) in the space of a week for 75-year-old Sheila Florance, who was near death from cancer and found inspiration to live long enough to complete the picture and receive the 1991 Best Actress award for it from the Australian Film Institute. I was reminded of that superbly human motion picture and Florance’s indelible portrait of a feisty free spirit as I watched the 91-year-old Danuta Szaflarska give life to the refined, independent-minded Mrs. Aneila, the strong center of Time to Die.

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Mrs. Aneila lives in a large, old house in Warsaw. She is flanked on one side by a McMansion owned by a nouveau riche couple and by a rundown music club for children on the other. During the Communist regime, she was forced to share her home with other “comrades.” Just after the film’s opening, we watch the last of them moving out. She can’t take the piano and offers to sell it to Mrs. Aneila. Then she remarks, “What would you do with a piano? I’ll send the buyer over when I find one.” As the moving truck pulls away, Mrs. Aneila says out loud, “But it’s my piano!”

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Finally, blessedly alone save for her adorable border collie, Philadelphia, Mrs. Aneila goes to the kitchen to make tea and toast. She butters the toast, cuts it into several rectangles, and offers a piece to Phila. “You like toast, don’t you,” she says as Phila gobbles up her offering. The pair goes to the upstairs sunroom of the rambling house, where Mrs. Aneila takes up her binoculars to see what her neighbors are up to. While she watches, Phila eats the rest of the bread.

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Mrs. Aneila’s adored son Wituś (Krzysztof Globisz) comes for his regular visit. Mrs. Aneila asks him to come live with her. “You always said tenants were a nuisance. Now they’re gone!” Wituś says his wife Marzenka (Marta Waldera) wouldn’t approve it. He leaves, with his mother thinking his wife is a real pill. But, in fact, Wituś is eager to get his hands on “his house,” demolish it, and sell the land to the highest bidder. Only his mother’s insistence on staying in its familiar, faded glory stands between him and the good life. What Mrs. Aneila does when she learns of his disloyalty forms what remains of the plot.

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The film, however, uses this storyline as a frame to observe the daily life, thoughts, and memories of this ancient and beautiful woman. Children are a focal point. Mrs. Aneila conjures many images of her young son (Wit Kaczanowski Jr.), a soft-faced lad with tender eyes. She encounters another young man (Kamil Bitau) nicknamed Dostoyevsky because his last name is Fyodor after he climbs up the side of the house and comes into her sunroom. He has a broad, mischievious face—a budding Huck Finn—and lives up to his looks by saying he planned to take something from the house and sell it. When she sends him away, he asks her for a fiver. She doesn’t understand the term, but when he descends the way he came, in a shot that emphasizes the height of her sunroom, she watches him fearfully and tells Phila she should have given him the fiver, her heart warmed by his simple, honest cheerfulness.

Mrs. Aneila is truly a tender-hearted woman who can be wounded and who tends to strike out when it happens. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, a fat and thoughtless child, rejects her offer of an ancient toy, saying she’d rather have her grandmother’s ring. She repeatedly calls Mrs. Aneila “grammy” instead of the preferred “grandma,” even after being corrected several times, and crushes walnuts in her hands. Bruised, Mrs. Aneila tells her if she doesn’t stop eating, she won’t have any admirers, and sends the child into an angry tantrum.

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Shot in exquisite black and white by cinematographer Artur Reinhart, the film is visual poetry to match the reveries of its main character. For example, she spies the young couple who run the music club quarrelling near a tree and then tenderly mending fences with a kiss. Mrs. Aneila remembers herself as a beautiful, young woman dancing with her handsome, young husband. The camera is in focus, sharply showcasing the attractiveness of the couple, but slowed to the speed of a willed and wonderful memory. Many scenes are shot through the uneven glazing of the many glass windows in the house, blurring and distorting the images like the edges of a cloud would. Many interesting camera angles are used to suggest space and height within the shrub-choked grounds of the house.

Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete without discussing Philadelphia, who has almost as much screen time as Szaflarska. The dog, often shown in close-up, frequently licks her lips when hunger strikes, cracks walnuts in her teeth and digs out the meat, and does her best to take care of her mistress. Mrs. Aneila usually has to run down the stairs to answer the phone, getting there just as the caller hangs up. Phila runs ahead of her and pulls the phone off the hook so she won’t miss the call. Mrs. Aneila constantly asks Phila if she’s lost her mind when she barks, but these alerts always mean that someone is around who shouldn’t be. This is one of the finest human-dog portrayals on screen.

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At Mrs. Aneila’s lowest point, she decides not to commit suicide, but just to will herself to die. She recites part of Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet. I quote it here in toto because it sums up what this film is all about:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark, at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my fate with kings.

I’m not at all sure this charming and wise film will be available in theatres or on DVD. I hope it is. See a woman who swings on a swing, who loves to walk in the pouring rain, who remembers dancing as a young bride, who loves her house filled with memories.

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