If the compensation of old age is wisdom, then 91-year-old Aniela (Danuta Szaflarska) has enough smarts to fill an iPad. In her case, however, that wisdom is neither spoiled by excessive intellect nor embittered by experience. She has simply reached that state where she knows only the things worth knowing.
Aniela is the centerpiece of this beautiful Polish tale and, in spite of the title, the tone is anything but pessimistic. Aniela’s strangely sweet presence could possibly put a smile on a boa constrictor. In her view, it’s only natural that death should terminate life; and besides, she has done her share of some pretty wonderful living. When it’s time to go, she’ll go.
The story of “Time to Die” was inspired by the personality of the lively, sprightly Szaflarska and penned by director Dorota Kedzierzawska herself. It runs like a tribute to one of Poland’s greatest acting talents, whose career spans some seven decades, and Szaflarska seems so spot-on and in her element that it’s hard — and perhaps even unnecessary — to distinguish the thesp from the woman she’s playing.
It’s to the director’s infinite credit that she draws Aniela as more complex and humorous than her gentle demeanor belies: The first words she utters on-screen, aimed at a tiresome female doctor, are “kiss my ass!”
Yet the words convey only defiance, not meanness. For all her slight frame and solitary, largely ignored existence, Aniela has commanding dignity and a real kindness — she’s what many women probably have on the edge of their subconscious as someone they’d like to be when they reach old age. And though it helps that cinematographer Artur Reinhart’s camera busies itself flattering Aniela’s not-quite wizened features while enveloping the whole package in a luminous black and white, you get the feeling that what defines Aniela depends less on superficial imagery than an inherent strength garnered from long, long years of life. Here is a woman who has not been beaten, humbled or spoiled by life; her perspective has remained fresh, her vision crystal-clear.
But even Aniela is not immune to loneliness and a wistful longing to engage in society. Her days are spent maintaining the dilapidated old-world villa where she has spent most of her life and observing her neighbors through an opera glass while commenting on all that goes on to her dog, Philadelphia. It saddens her that her only son (Krzysztof Globisz) has turned into a stiff and overweight middle-aged oaf and her granddaughter (Patrycja Szewczyk) is fat, silly and impossible to talk to.
But in her mind, past memories have just as much weight (or maybe more) than present reality, and her son’s broad, pasty face as he looks at her with irritation is frequently augmented by montages of her visions of him as a laughing, carefree boy on the swing in their yard or as a handsome lad (Wit Kaczanowski Jr.) bounding down the stairs. She has almost got to the point where she doesn’t care anymore what kind of a man her son is now, since he gave her joy and delight for so many years — that’s plenty of memory mileage.
Still, Aniela is too intelligent to let sentiment cloud judgment, and when she learns that her son, neighbor and the municipal government are all planning to take over her house and sell off the land, she hatches a plan to outsmart everyone and get a good chuckle in the process.
In the end, “Time to Die” isn’t about the trick Aniela pulls, or keeping one’s sanity and independence in old age (there are some good pointers, though). It’s a glorious testament of life by a woman who has — in the fullest sense of the phrase — been there, done that and seen all there is to see. She shows us that for an existence to become meaningful, each moment must be savored and each sensation treasured, whether it be loaded with pain or tinged with the rose hues of happiness.