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Break the Routine

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Tribeca Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Woman on the Roof (2022)

It’s late summer 2021 in a small town in Poland. A sad middle-aged woman lives in a cramped apartment with an unkind husband, Julek (Bogdan Koca), and a permanently shirtless adult son, Mariusz (Adam Bobik). As the movie begins, she’s in the laundry room when she notices the rungs in the wall go up to a hatch on the roof. She climbs slowly; the crocs she’s wearing are not designed for this. The hatch isn’t locked. On the roof she pauses to feel the sun on her face, and then goes to peek over the edge. From where she stands it’s not such a long way down, not at all. Her life is on the edge of a precipice, which her men have utterly failed to notice, but why would they? She is there to cook their meals and iron their clothes and what else is a mother and a wife for? Well, when she does something that surprises even herself, everyone finds out.

It takes us a while to learn her name: Mira (Dorota Pomykala). She works long shifts as a midwife, where the young mothers only lift their eyes from their phones to whine or scream and blame her for their pain. She is only a few years from retirement, but up until now the joyless drudgery of her life was just about bearable. But things have recently and quickly spiraled out of control; and the worst thing about what she does is that she does it badly. The woman she does it to can hardly believe it, even as it’s happening. Mira hasn’t thought any of it through, in the same way you rip off a scab without thinking about the future scar. The momentary relief is enough. But the foolishness of her decision reaps big consequences. Police come to the door; all Julek can do is shout, while Mariusz stands blinking and bewildered. There are lawyers, who barely manage to make eye contact. And there are snowballing secrets revealed, to Julek’s horror and the great upset of Mira’s sister Ewa (Agnieszka Rajda). But it takes another jump, and a sharp-eyed nurse’s calling of hospital security, for people to stop shrieking at Mira for what she has done to them and start reckoning with what’s been done to her. And when Mira finally gets a little breathing room, she stops putting everyone else first and starts thinking about herself. As “La haine” famously made clear, it’s not the fall that matters, but how you land.

Writer-director Anna Jadowska has done something wonderful and it’s delightful the Tribeca Festival noticed. This is a movie that shows us the impact of a mistake, detailing exactly what drove our mild, quiet heroine to make it, but without letting her avoid responsibility. Is this fair? Of course not, but who said life was fair? Ms. Pomykala is so good as a woman deciding how much to let life crush her that it’s easy to forget she’s acting. We are carefully told, through lifelike dialogue that emphasizes what’s unsaid, exactly what straws slowly piled up to break Mira’s back. And we are shown, through Ita Zbroniec-Zajt’s precise cinematography, how monochrome and bleak Mira’s world is in every way. The yellows of the hospital where Mira works, the blues of the bathrooms, the browns of the apartment and the greens of a hospital where Mira is briefly sent give an impression of overwhelming flatness, even as they flood the screen with color. The major scenes between Mira and Julek all take place at night, in what appears to be natural light through the apartment windows, making a upsetting chat in a cold kitchen extra bleak and hopeless. But while all of these things may well be reasons for what Mira did, they are none of them excuses, which Ms. Jadowska never lets us forget. There are plenty of quietly desperate women who never do something this drastic.

And what is so very fascinating about this movie is how it centers the quietly desperate women of its town. With the exception of Julek and Mariusz, all the major parts belong to women; and it’s nearly 20 minutes before a man says a word of dialogue. When Mira goes to the shops, the other patrons, as well as the cheerful clerks, are all women. The maternity ward is obviously all women. At the other hospital all the nurses and most of the other patients are women. Even in the final sequence, it’s a woman who takes the lead. All this is startling because of how often the smaller parts in movies show us a world mainly peopled by men, and certainly not peopled by women of a certain age, who must pay for the fish food with carefully counted-out coins. Their feet hurt from standing all shift so they must wear ugly but comfortable shoes. When they take off their bras there are marks on their backs and shoulders. And when they crack, their carefully maintained world collapses around them. And then of course there’s Ewa, crushed with guilt about what Mira did, but with a wriggling, shaming unwillingness to share the responsibility for it. It’s only to her that Mira expresses her anger, which is so knowing. And it’s so rare for a movie to be this knowing as well as this good, which makes “Woman on the Roof” special indeed.

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