Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 11, 2019)
When the 2019 Oscar nominations emerged, 2018’s Roma became a rare Best Foreign Language Film contender to also snag a spot as a Best Picture possibility. Given this rarified air, no one felt surprised when Roma took home the Best Foreign Language Film award.
Though it didn’t earn a Best Picture nod, 2018’s Cold War also managed an unusual feat of its own, as Pawel Pawlikowski received a nomination for Best Director. Ultimately, Cold War received no Oscars, but given the competition from Roma, it still did well for itself.
Initially set in late 1940s Poland, a musician named Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) visits the countryside to discover and collate folk music. While there, he meets Zuzanna “Zula” Lichon (Joanna Kulig), a beautiful young singer.
From there, the pair launches a star-crossed romance, one that hits snags due to both geography and repression. As Wiktor flees to “decadent” Paris, Zula remains behind the Iron Curtain, and they struggle to maintain a connection.
In the US, streaming services owned the rights to both Roma and Cold War, a fact that meant both received limited theatrical engagements. This became a bigger issue with Roma due to its pedigree.
Normally a black and white Spanish language film wouldn’t receive much attention in the US, but because Alfonso Cuarón directed it, the movie generated more public attention. A few years earlier, Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar and had a box office hit with 2013’s Gravity.
Oh, and Cuarón directed one chapter of a little franchise I call ”Harry Potter”. This made him a much bigger “name” than Cold War’s Pawel Pawlikowski, and ensured that despite its serious “art house” vibe, Roma would muster more public attention than the average foreign language film.
As for Cold War, it attracted that usual cinephile crowd and not much more, I suspect. Because I have yet to see Roma, I can’t judge its general appeal, but War definitely lacks a tale that would attract the masses.
Honestly, I can’t find a whole lot in War to make it interesting for the film buff crowd either. While the story comes with potential, its execution seems lackluster.
In terms of narrative development, that is, as War comes with its own particular strengths. I can’t fault the appealing black and white cinematography, as we always get an image that provides a sumptuous visual piece, even in the more gloomy surroundings.
I take that back, as I can fault one aspect of the photography: its “on the nose” symbolism. Early in the movie, I noticed that most of the time, the characters remained relegated to the bottom half of the screen.
In general, the actors filled the full frame during scenes of strong emotion. I get the rationale for this choice, but it doesn’t work.
Anytime a viewer becomes aware of framing decisions such as this, it means the story’s emotional impact fails. If I became more invested in the tale, I wouldn’t notice the shot decisions, so it seems like a problem that I did.
Beyond that, I feel Pawlikowski bites off more than he can chew in terms of narrative ambition. He attempts to pack many years and settings into an 88-minute film, and this tends to leave characters and story areas undercooked.
We don’t really get much rationale behind the Wiktor/Zula connection, and their relationship fails to develop in a meaningful manner. We just need to swallow on face value that they share a passionate connection.
While I don’t demand – or want – a movie to spoon-feed these character elements, War simply makes them too ill-defined. Pawlikowski seems more interested in long scenes of native music than anything else, so a short film finds itself with even less room for story expansion than otherwise might occur.
Maybe I’m just a big dumb American who can’t understand the greatness of foreign cinema, but I admit I don’t find much to appeal to me in Cold War. Other than its attractive photography, it seems like a slow, dull stab at a period romance.