In 2013 Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski released the brilliantly concise and thoroughly evocative “Ida”. It was a haunting movie filled with beauty and intrigue. Also it was the first Polish picture to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It took five years but we finally have his follow-up and it’s just as mysterious and tantalizing.
“Cold War” is a much different film than Pawlikowski’s previous effort but you’ll quickly recognize some of the same artistic choices that made “Ida” so visually arresting. Once again he teams with cinematographer Lukasz Zal who shoots in gorgeous black-and-white and uses the desaturated palette to convey the mood of a postwar Poland struggling under the weight of Communism. This time even more emphasis is put on the strategic use of shadows and lighting.
The Warsaw-born Pawlikowski tells a story loosely based on the tempestuous and constantly intersecting romance of his own parents from whom the two lead characters take their names. Structurally it moves from point to point along the relationship timeline of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Their earnest yet troubled romance serves as the film’s centerpiece.
The story opens in 1949 with Wiktor and his colleague Irena (played by the excellent and underused Agata Kulesza) visiting rural villages to find undiscovered singing talent for their state-sponsored folk music project. Those chosen are brought to a school to be trained for an upcoming tour. It’s here that Wiktor is drawn to young Zula. He sees something special in her and his curiosity quickly turns to captivation.
Telling too much more would hurt the experience, but let’s just say their mutual attraction grows into a romance – passionate and sincere but troubled from the start. Pawlikowski skips across their timeline making stops in Warsaw, Paris, and Yugoslavia. Along the way we watch Wiktor and Zula separate, reunite, and then separate again all amid an ever-changing European post-war landscape (something else Pawlikowski and Zal capture with incredible clarity through their lens).
From early on you can sense that “Cold War” is a deeply personal story. It’s a love story that is both romantic and tragic. Two fine lead performances drive the central relationship which is filled with intense passion but also missed opportunities at every turn. At the same time Pawlikowski has several things to say about the time period and much of it is vividly told through his camera. That extra layer is what pushes “Cold War” into truly special territory.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS