Ryszard Brylski: Sour Soup (Żurek), 2003

reviewed by Lisa Di Bartolomeo © 2005

The New Polish Mother: The Descent of an Ideal in Ryszard Brylski’s Sour Soup (Żurek), 2003

The plot of Ryszard Brylski’s film Sour Soup seems straightforward, if sad. Halina (Katarzyna Figura), a youngish widow, tramps around a small Polish border town in search of the father of her infant grandson, a man her mentally-challenged fifteen-year-old daughter Iwonka (Natalia Rybicka) refuses to name. The women confront and accuse man after man in an effort to find the father in order to name and christen the child before the Christmas holidays are over, as Halina had promised her late husband. As she wanders the town with Iwonka and the baby, Halina must deal with her own widowed status (her husband committed suicide by throwing himself under a train) and the increasingly clear indications that her daughter has had multiple relations with men. Her troubled situation—she works constantly to provide now for two dependents—is made the more touching by her longing for some sort of intimacy, some love of her own. Finally, however, Halina may be forced to confront a difficult truth about her family, leaving her more shaken and alone than before her quest for the baby’s father began.

To the seasoned Polish viewer, even the film’s title suggests a traditional holiday homemade soup, the żurek of the title. Such homey touches seem to beckon one in from the cold, from the uncertain reality of economic hardship and social readjustment that has occurred since the fall of communism in 1989. But the film makes clear that the comforts of home are no longer homemade, or, even worse, are completely subverted. The żurek our heroines eat seems tainted, at best. Halina acquires it after her friend Matuszek (Zbigniew Zamachowski) tricks a prosperous, braggart Pole (on his way out of the country for a lavish Christmas ski trip abroad) out of the last bottle in the store. Halina’s żurek, thus, is not only ill-gotten, but also store-bought, from a bottle, rather than made from scratch.

This tiny detail, perhaps lost on a non-Polish viewer, establishes this image of the Polish Mother as someone other than the traditionally idealized figure whose sole purpose is the salvation and support of her man, the bearing and rearing of future heroes to die for their fatherland, the silent suffering of endless martyrdom for her country. If such a woman is alone, it is for only a limited set of reasons: she is widowed by war or rebellion, or else she is quietly enduring solitude while her man languishes in prison, also for a patriotic purpose. In Brylski’s film, we have a very different image of Polish motherhood, doubled here in mother and daughter and provocatively twisted for a movie-going public unused to displays of such “profligate” womanhood.

Based on a special holiday story written by Olga Tokarczuk for Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza in 1999, Brylski’s film adaptation presents a wintry world of uncomfortable implications and tainted relationships. Tokarczuk is considered a feminist writer, who focuses primarily on the experiences of women in the turbulent world of post-communist Poland. But the film’s source provides little more than a nebulous plotline and a vaguely traced mystery. The fact that the story is little more than a sketch may account for the film’s uneven, incomplete feel. The plot consists wholly of a series of encounters with and accusations directed at the baby’s could-be fathers, whose relationships to the girl, Iwonka, are never made clear. The film’s ending is deliberately inconclusive, although more suggestive than the story’s merely adumbrated and somewhat anticlimactic identification of the baby’s father.

The icy chill the protagonists must endure as they make their way by foot and bus around their town communicates itself immediately to the viewer. Brylski deftly establishes the visual and tonal contrast between the icy weather and the upcoming holidays, meant to be a time of warmth and family communion. No such communion is possible for Halina and Iwonka; these women seem to subsist on the literal margins of their town. Similarly juxtaposed with the Christmastime mise en scène and Christian belief in Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus is the more profane truth of Iwonka’s seemingly numerous sexual partners and her own baby’s ignoble origins, marking the film as an inversion of Poland’s sacred images of motherhood.

Iwonka is developmentally delayed, perhaps epileptic, and no longer attends school. She is teased by other children, who throw snowballs at her, and she seems to look longingly at every passing man as her potential savior or fairy tale hero. She gazes wistfully at the mute, broken, black-and-white television and copies video-dancers’ moves as her mother scrubs the floors of their little cottage on her hands and knees. Iwonka’s selfishness is readily apparent: as the two women shop in a supermarket for holiday necessities, Iwonka practically throws a fit in order to force her mother to buy her a T-shirt with a dragon emblazoned across the chest, an article as inappropriate for winter as it is clearly intended to draw attention to her breasts. The girl clearly seeks out and revels in the male gaze; in the presence of young soldiers, she removes her childish knit hat, shakes out her hair, and unzips her heavy winter coat to reveal her breasts, enlarged by her pregnancy and breast-feeding. As her mother looks on disapprovingly, Iwonka strives to make herself the object of the consuming gaze, explicitly sexualized by her nameless baby boy. Left alone with a fish-and-chips joint cook, she is at first shy. But when she has having trouble breast-feeding the baby, she lets the young man touch her and apply her nipple to the baby’s mouth, squeezing her breast as if to help its flow. Shortly after this scene, the young man persuades Iwonka to leave the baby so she can see the large homemade tank where carp (part of the traditional Christmas Eve feast) are kept. Once alone and distracted by the fun of catching the over-crowded fish in a net, she allows the man nearly to rape her, an act only prevented by the arrival of Halina with the young man’s boss. Iwonka is clearly a child in a woman’s body. As Tokarczuk’s story makes explicit, she is a child who perhaps enjoys the power she feels over others as they gaze on her with desire written in their eyes, as well as the assurance of her own attractiveness this gives her, perhaps remedying from time to time her awareness of her “difference.”

Even sadder than Iwonka’s defloration and misuse by various men is her mother’s lonely, workaday life. Halina is truly a “woman alone” (reminiscent of the protagonist of Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 film of the same name) in her struggle to find some bit of goodness for herself in an otherwise thankless, miserable existence. Her search for some semblance of human contact and intimacy is made clear in her sweaty sexual liaison with Władysław, an old friend and one of the many men Iwonka claims is the father of her child. After showing up in the middle of the night, Władysław proceeds to go to bed with Halina, both of them almost fully clothed, for a few moments of animalistic gratification. She clearly feels something for him, despite their marriages to other people, and cherishes his quick caresses and his brief, occasional presence. The pathos of such scenes of snatched physical contact is hard on Halina, and she cries at the end of their mutual release. Left alone by a husband who committed suicide, Halina is left to recall wistfully the men who once chased after her. These men are still present in her life and on occasion help her and her daughter. But Halina’s loneliness is accentuated by her daughter’s lack of understanding—beyond that of a normal teenager—and by her desperation to avoid further shame after her family has already suffered so much. The moments when the two women giggle together over an inside joke indeed seem few and far between as Halina beats Iwonka and screams at her in her frustration, and as the women travel across the frozen landscape in their fruitless search.

In fact, in a scene not present in the story source, Halina and Iwonka venture to a nearby soldiers’ barracks, where Iwonka falsely accuses one of them of being the baby’s father simply because she finds the soldier handsome and has seen him around the little town. The lie is discovered and the women leave in shameful misery. On the road from the base, masked soldiers emerge from the frozen woods and gang-rape the women. Iwonka’s view of this incident is indicative of her perception of life and sex: as she is being raped by the man she believes to be the soldier she had just accused, she sees his face in a foggy halo of light and stretches out her hand to stroke his face. Meanwhile, Halina, who presumably has had to endure this horrible crime alongside her daughter, forces Iwonka to promise never to speak of the incident to anyone—enough shame has befallen their family, she stresses, and asks Iwonka whether she knows what it means to keep a secret until death.

At this point, what had previously been only subtext is brought to the fore: Iwonka proudly asserts that, yes, she indeed knows what it is to keep such a secret and she has already kept one, just as she had promised her father. The film finally confirms what the viewer has suspected: that Iwonka’s father, Wituś, is the baby’s father and that Wituś jumped under a train out of shame and self-loathing. Even Halina begins to see this possibility as she looks at Iwonka’s proud assertion of her trustworthiness. Why else has her daughter been dragging her around from house to house in a fruitless effort to find the baby’s father? For all her mental inadequacy and apparent immaturity, Iwonka nonetheless has kept her word, and refuses to yield her father’s and her secret. When the family friend, Matuszek, stands up in front of his wife and friends (one of whom Iwonka had just fingered as the baby’s father) and claims that he is the father (despite his infertility resulting from an earlier biking accident), Halina cries not out of despair or a sense of betrayal (that Matuszek would have favored her daughter over her), but rather out of relief that the entire farce is over and her family’s terrible secret may now remain safe. Matuszek has helped the women in the past, and once again he steps forward to save them from shame and ruin. As he returns from a private moment with his wife following his announcement—during which it appears that he has told her the truth and that she has agreed to the masquerade—he seems ready to accept his new responsibility and perhaps to play a part in stabilizing the lives of Halina, Iwonka, and the baby he now calls his own.

That these two women in the end find a man to save them does not lessen the force of Brylski’s subversion of the idealized image of Polish motherhood. In fact, it serves to underscore just how this film, as well as the story on which it is based, diverge from traditional cultural iconography. The story takes place at Christmas, one of the most pious times of the year in still-Catholic Poland; everywhere there are reminders of the holy nativity, of the virgin birth of Christ, of the self-sacrifice of Mary and her son. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic inversion of such imagery than Iwonka, the mentally-challenged girl, and her nearly-deranged mother randomly accusing men of fathering a child born of the crime of incest. That Iwonka is anything but a virgin enhances this sharp contrast, as does Halina’s clear enjoyment of sex (adulterous for her lover, who is married). Could these women be further from the ideal? They suffer certainly, but not silently and not for the good of Poland; they suffer simply because they are human and, perhaps even more, because they are women. Their struggles and tears should produce some lesson or benefit for the fatherland. Instead, their daily travails sink them deeper into degradation and apostasy.

Nor is their suffering harnessed in service of some didactic lesson. The downtrodden heroine of Holland’s A Woman Alone (Kobieta samotna) was forced to pay for her sins, to reimburse the universe for having dared to long for some happiness of her own. Here, Halina and Iwonka seem to find a way out of their troubles, or at least one of their troubles. When Matuszek takes on the fatherhood of Iwonka’s baby son, he absolves them not only of the necessity for further “search” and humiliating accusations, all inevitably coming to nothing, but also of the horrifying prospect of having to admit aloud the truth they both know. Matuszek has protected the women from the shame of admitting to themselves, and perhaps to others, the baby’s incestuous paternity. In doing so, he has ironically strengthened at least one Polish myth even as the film deflates so many others: as a good Pole, Matuszek has sacrificed himself for the next generation.

Lisa Di Bartolomeo (West Virginia University)

Sour Soup (Żurek), Poland, 2003
Color, 72 minutes
Director: Ryszard Brylski
Screenplay: Ryszard Brylski, based on a short story by Olga Tokarczuk
Cinematography: Arkadiusz Tomiak
Art Direction: Piotr Kopec
Editor: Jarosław Kamiński
Cast: Katarzyna Figura, Natalia Rybicka, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Marek Kasprzyk, Hanna Polk
Producer: Dorota Kaźmierska-Nyczek
Production: Pro Arte, Telewizja Polska (TVP) S.A.

Ryszard Brylski: Sour Soup (Żurek), 2003

reviewed by Lisa Di Bartolomeo © 2005