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Female Moviegoers in Poland Enthralled by Box Office Hit

Panned by critics, 'Never Again' strikes home with its depiction of modern characters.

April 13, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — A perpetually smiling divorced mother, who wears Snoopy shirts and ponders everything from sexual dysfunction to spot removers, is enchanting this rather glum and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation.

Judyta is the star of "Never Again," an unlikely box office hit that is at once a soundtrack-driven fairy tale and an enlightening glimpse into the yearnings of today's Polish woman. Since opening on Valentine's Day, "Never Again" has sold nearly 2 million tickets -- a distinction usually reserved for battlefield epics adapted from this country's revered literature.

The film is a kind of "Bridget Jones's Diary" fable without the strong sexuality and double entendres. A 40ish magazine columnist, Judyta is dealing with a philandering husband, a precocious teenage daughter, a post-divorce house in the country and -- unnervingly in this land of tractors and calloused hands -- an emotionally evolved lover, who, in the final scenes, appears on a rainy bridge for a long kiss.

The critics aren't swooning. Polish men suspect they're being lampooned. But daughters, mothers and grandmothers emerge from "Never Again" with admiration for an independent character defining her own success in a country dominated by men and religion.

"This film was made for women," said Karolina Gilej, an economics student at Warsaw University, who complained that Polish cinema had paid scant attention to the nuances of female characters. "There is a division among Polish women today. One side lives only for the man. The other, independent, side sees men as only appendages. This movie says you can be independent and still have a man. It shows the complete woman."

In many ways, Judyta is an echo of what Hollywood has been producing for decades, but she is relatively new in a nation still refining its identity 14 years after Soviet Bloc communism collapsed. Her story captures the sentiment registered in a 2000 poll, in which 87% of Polish women surveyed demanded an equal partnership with men in sharing jobs and household duties -- up from 54% in 1996.

This trend and shrewd marketing have made the low-budget "Never Again" one of the most successful Polish movies in years.

"We wanted this film to be unabashedly optimistic," said "Never Again" screenwriter Ilona Lepkowska, one of Poland's leading television writers. "Poles need optimism. There's so much fear and worry about the future. I want them to see that life is not that bad after all. We're seeing this change of women.... The Polish woman is strong on her own.

"She stood in line during communism to buy bread and meat and washing detergent. Those burdens of everyday life have been lifted, and now women don't have to struggle so hard, so all that energy is going into self-development."

"Never Again" may be an indication of things to come in Poland, but the movie often showing next door, "The Passion of the Christ," is the kind of religious epic that has resonated here for centuries. Unlike most of Europe, Poles are not squeamish about depicting Jesus' suffering. Much of their art and folklore is dedicated to the agony of the crucifixion.

Scenes of nuns carrying rosaries and buying tickets to "The Passion" underscore the Catholic faith that imbues Polish nationalism. "The Passion" -- and Pope John Paul II's teachings to his native land -- serves as a counterweight to the new moralities and liberal lifestyles flowing through "Never Again."

The movie is fairly tame and by no means revolutionary. But it is, along with sitcoms and recent Polish fiction, another indication that Poles may be relying less on the church and more on advice columnists and secular rationalizations in weathering the travails of modern life.

These pressures have intensified in recent years, and Judyta's comic quest for fulfillment -- adapted from a best-selling novel -- is playing in a country that could use a bit of escapism. The unemployment rate is 20%, and many Poles fear terrorist attacks because of their military's involvement in Iraq.

Nonetheless, some reviewers panned "Never Again" for being a manipulative dalliance. The magazine Film said the story "is based on cliches (those kisses in the rain!) and banalities occasionally spiced with witty dialogue." Complaining that the film was empty-headed and morally distasteful, one of Poland's most famous directors walked out after about 30 minutes.

The review in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper declared, "A high I.Q. is not evident here," adding that the film moves with "false spontaneity" and the "perpetual smiles seem like an advertisement for whitening toothpaste." Critics opined about the "soft-macho" appeal of Judyta's new lover.

Joanna Gliniecka, a law professor, would tend to agree with the reviewers.

"Judyta's not silly. She's a regular woman choosing her own way," said Gliniecka, munching an apple outside a theater here. "Women seeking such independence are seen by men as crazy feminists."


Fleishman was recently on assignment in Warsaw.

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