Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 22 May 2008
Source DVD screener
When director Dorota Kedzierzawska was born on June 1, 1957, actress Danuta Szaflarska was already forty-two years old and had been performing in films for almost a decade. Over the next half-century they would each perfect their individual crafts – Szaflarska would quickly become a renowned actress while Kedzierzawska, on the eve of her thirty-forth birthday, released her first feature film – until last year, when they joined together for Time to Die, an outwardly quaint and simplistic look at the last days of a 91-year-old Polish woman named Aniela.
Aniela is the owner of a rundown boarding house in the thick forests of Poland. As the film begins, we see her last boarder moving out, promising as she goes to sell the piano she’s leaving behind. “But the piano is mine,” Aniela shouts from the window, and as the truck of furniture disappears down the driveway the old woman finds herself – happily, she says aloud – in complete silence. Her only companion is a dog named Phila, whose primary role throughout the film is to startle Aniela from frequent daydreams with rough, sudden barks. In return Aniela treats Phila like a person, feeding her walnuts and buttered bread and talking to the dog as though it were her husband.
To say that Aniela represents Communism is, for lack of a better word, strange. The idea that Kedzierzawska would cast a nonagenarian woman to embody something so closely associated with stubborn, villainous men – you cannot think of Communism, no matter where, without thinking of Stalin and Mao – initially seems like a joke, especially when you consider how Kedzierzawska wrote the entire film specifically for Szaflarska. She is a grand actress, with a face that belies her age and a voice that seems to haunt the screen; allowed to move throughout most of the film alone save for her character’s ever-present dog, Szaflarska radiates with more authenticity than actresses one-third her age. But it’s only when Aniela’s son and granddaughter appear, and the film approaches its close, that the importance of having an older woman play the part becomes clear.
Aniela and her neighbors – a rich couple in one direction, a Summerhill-style music school in another – are in a constant struggle. The wealthy husband and wife want to buy Aniela’s home, even sending a fat sweaty man to her front door with an offer; Phila quickly chases him away, and Aniela refuses to discuss any deal with them over the phone. The students, on the other hand, play loud, out-of-tune music and cross through the broken chain-link fence separating her property from theirs; in one instance, Aniela awakens to discover a young Russian boy nicknamed Dostoyevsky climbing in through a third-story window with the intent, he says openly, of stealing her things. “You have all this junk here,” he says, “So I think, why would one person need all that.”
Similarly, her son and granddaughter have abandoned her—defected, as it were, to the side of Western ideals: the wealthy couple with the expensive car and large home. A round man, Aniela’s son takes little interest in her well-being, visiting infrequently and saying little in terms of loving reassurances. His daughter, a pudgy little girl who openly despises Aniela’s cavernous home, shows concern for no one but herself; in one scene, as Aniela demonstrates a toy her son once played with, the little girl turns her attention to a mirror and examines herself with a smile. “Would you like to take this as a memento?” Aniela asks, the toy in her hand. “I’ll take your rings as a memento, Grams,” the granddaughter responds, now focused hypnotically on her own flowing blond hair. Later, after Aniela calls her fat (“You are fat like a whale. Who will ever want you? You’ll never find an admirer.”) and watches as the young girl storms away crying, Aniela finds her downstairs in a state of misery, placated only when promised the rings she so desperately wants, but only after her grandmother’s death. Then, happy again, the granddaughter raises a plate of food to her chin and eats, beaming.
In Aniela’s eyes, her neighbors and family are exactly the same—in pursuit of money, in pursuit of things, and nothing else. But her assumptions are wrong, at least when it comes to the music school, and in talking about her neighbors she reveals the painful truths about her own life. Criticizing the wealthy couple for the sameness of their daily routines – he arrives home, the car door shuts, she welcomes him – she exhibits a similar monotony, persistently taking her post at the windows of a third-floor room, binoculars in hand. And more than once, as she watches family and neighbors alike drive away, she proclaims, “They left.”
The differences between her neighbors – the decadent and gluttonous West, the loud and chaotic East – mirror the world as it was in 1989, when Poland finally abandoned its Communist center and embraced democracy under Lech Walesa: the United States had just witness eight years of a president who touted “morning in America,” while Russia fell apart under Gorbachev’s government and looked hurriedly for a new leader, for the end of Communism, while embracing the scant freedoms Gorbachev ceded with glasnost and perestroika. So when the time comes for Aniela to will her home away – to will the future of her country – she cannot find someone who matches her sense of duty to the home; the children and grandchildren she had hoped would take over after she passed on, preserving her ways of life, refuse, even remarking that the house should be burned down rather than repaired. In a scene near the film’s end, Aniela is awakened in the night by Phila’s barking; moving to her usual post, she finds her son and daughter-in-law talking with the rich couple in their lavish home, then overhears them discuss how he’ll steal the house from under her by making her sign it away.
All of this makes the film’s final few minutes doubly beautiful. In the most memorable of these scenes, Aniela walks back from the music school and, stopping, takes a seat in her old wooden swing, the one Dostoyevsky had asked to play on after failing to steal any of her belongings. She had begrudgingly allowed him and his dissonant friends to take full advantage of it, though she later sees them and runs them off her property. Now, after agreeing to cede her home, her property – her country – to the clashing, cacophonous sounds of unadulterated freedom, of freedom released after years of suppression, she swings on the cheap, decades-old rope-and-board construction, laughing.
Time to Die begins with light—bright, sudden light that fills the theatre. Knowing nothing about the film other than its title, we assume the woman whose face is presented to us has died. But the title is not intended to be ominous or apprehensive; instead, it serves as a notation of inevitability, of the idea that everything must pass. And just as her home is filled suddenly with the wild, rushing crowds of children, Aniela and her era recede instantly into history.