with Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Boris Szyc, Agata Kulesza. Cinematography by Lucasz Zal.
Music begins the movie, with a harsh, blunt bagpipe horn blaring, letting you know you are not in the land of of the high class. You are in hardscrabble rural Poland, in 1949, just after World War II, when people who sing the old songs and play the instruments of the people, are starting a tour led by some musicians in search of the best exemplars of authentic folk music.
This folk music collective develops into a touring company. Some singers are clearly talented, some are homely, some are comely, and the pianist Wiktor who listens and watches them is clearly attracted to Zula, a young blond beauty who has already shown her ability to manipulate the situation. Zula suggests to a very strong singer that they try out together after getting her to reveal the song she means to sing. You can feel the discomfort of the stronger singer, but Zula gains an instant advantage by appearing with her. Wiktor recognizes the charisma of Zula, and her appeal goes beyond her musical talent. Their love affair becomes the subject of the movie.
The music never fades behind the glare of the love story, and the political restrictions that wrest the two lovers away from each other. Joanna Kulig’s voice brings pathos to the songs in her clear vibrato, whether they are the old folk tunes or the modern jazz she transitions to with the help of her lover. The beautifully composed black and white photography highlights their stark choices. As the folk music is forced into a regulated political mold, as Zula falls into line with the administrator of the company, as Wiktor becomes more disillusioned with his lack of freedom, it seems impossible to navigate an easy exit from each unpleasant condition. The crisp editing commands your constant attention.
The acting by both leads has nuance, mystery, tension, all the things that keep your eyes glued to the screen. I found the love story believable, the situations convincingly set up, all the costumes, the make up, perfectly done in the spirit of the late forties, fifties, and early sixties. The film deserves to be called a musical, so much does the music match the feelings of all the players. Even though it is a very personal story, the political straight jackets direct how each person behaves. The not unexpected tragic end is as beautifully filmed as the rest of the movie.
Bearing perhaps not equal weight, but contributing greatly to the movie are two other actors: Boris Szyc who plays Kaczmarek, the administrator of the company, and the other music scout/director of the company — Agata Kulesza as Irena.