A kind of senior, housebound variant on Kelly Reichardt’s wondrous Wendy and Lucy (2008), the award-winning Polish film Pora umierac  (translated, rather uninvitingly, as Time to Die) features two star performances: one from 90-year-old Polish actress Danuta Szaflarska, as Aniela, the other from one Tokaj as “Phila,” the dog who is Aniela’s constant companion. This pair reside in a large, run-down property flanked on one side by an upwardly mobile couple and on the other by a music school for children. The film (which, apart from a brief prologue sequence, takes place entirely in this one location) follows Aniela as she observes her neighbours and the kids at the school (the movie features some of the most productive investigative voyeurism since Rear Window), interacts with her portly son and grand-daughter and generally passes the time. With developers snooping around, Aniela is keen for her family to move into the house and take over the running of the property. But when it emerges that her son’s intentions are not entirely honourable, Aniela, after a brief surrender, decides to take some serious action.
It's the kind of plot that's familiar enough from TV movies, but the writer/director Dorota Kedzierzawska throws some very pleasing surprises into the mix here. For a start, Aniela isn’t constructed to fit current US movie paradigms of elderly protagonists. She’s not a loveable old dear, or a bawdy wisecracker, or a harridan, and she doesn’t (thank God) have early onset Alzheimer’s. Rather, Szaflarska’s wily and intelligent performance continually discovers subtle and complex shades in the character, creating a fully realised human being, full of believable quirks and contradictions. (The prologue sequence finds Aniela telling an insensitive doctor to “Kiss my ass,” but she later upbraids one of the music school kids for his use of bad language.)
Then there’s the distinctive, striking look of the movie, which is shot in black and white. It’s an extremely atmospheric work: Kedzierzawska and her DP/editor Artur Reinhart unostentatiously turn the locations into an extension of the protagonist’s consciousness, placng the viewer right inside her perceptions and memories. But, ultimately, it’s Aniela’s relationship with Phila that’s the centre of Pora umierac, and the dog’s expressions and reactions to his mistress’s manoeuvres and monologues are a joy to behold. This is a touching and profoundly intimate film that sustains the interest up to its graceful, well-judged end.