The movie gods move in strange and mysterious ways. Coincidence and incongruity can be to the silver screen what they are to life — only much more so.
Consider 2018. Michael B. Jordan plays both bad guy, in “Black Panther,” and good guy, in “Creed II.” Liam Neeson is married to Elizabeth McGovern in “The Commuter” and Viola Davis in “Widows.” (At least he doesn’t have a wife in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”) Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013) comes out with documentaries about both Mister Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) and Orson Welles (“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”), two names unlikely ever to have appeared in the same sentence prior to this year. Thirty-three years after Welles’s death, his “The Other Side of the Wind” finally gets released. Some things are just worth waiting for.
Netflix released both the Welles documentary and the Welles feature. It also released Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” That that film has an unexpected counterpart reminds us that sometimes the ways in which the movie gods move can be lovely as well as strange and mysterious.
“Roma,” a foreign-language film (Spanish and Mixtec) from an Oscar-winning director (Cuarón won for “Gravity”), which is shot in black and white and set in the relatively recent past, was released on Dec. 7.
“Cold War,” a foreign-language film (mainly Polish, but also French, German, Russian, Italian, and Croatian) from an Oscar-winning director (Pawel Pawlikowski, who won for “Ida,” 2013), which is also shot in black and white and set in the relatively recent past, opens here Jan. 18.
Netflix didn’t release “Cold War.” Amazon Studies did. But that’s similarity of a different sort. Here we have two very deep-pocketed movie upstarts reaching for award-season recognition with an extraordinary film.
That extraordinariness is the most important connection. “Roma” and “Cold War” are two of the finest films of the year — in the case of “Roma,” maybe the decade.
Cuarón’s film takes it title from the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. Set in 1970 and ’71, it very much draws on his own family history. The family consists of a father (mostly absent), mother, grandmother, and four children. Cleo, the children’s nanny, is the film’s beating heart. As played by Yalitza Aparicio, she is a marvel of dignity, stoicism, and kindness.
(In a further example of the movie gods’ strange and mysterious ways, another screen nanny, the most famous of them all, arrives in theaters this month. “Mary Poppins Returns” opens Dec. 19. Give Cleo a magic umbrella, and she’d fly a lot higher than Mary.)
“Cold War” is a continent away from “Roma” and begins almost a quarter century earlier, in 1947. Pawlikowski’s film follows a years-long love affair between Wiktor, a pianist (Tomasz Kot), and Zula, a young singer (Joanna Kulig), whom he selects for a Polish folk troupe and helps groom as a performer.
The films’ being set in the past is crucial, since both are about the operation of memory — “Roma” especially. There the memory is familial. With “Cold War” it’s cultural: Europe in the ’50s, a very specific extended moment in postwar time.
The decision Cuarón and Pawlikowski made to shoot in black and white isn’t just aesthetic — almost indecently beautiful as the look of each film is. It’s a way of subtly underscoring the past-ness of each story: to create a temporal distance that, however paradoxically, helps collapse emotional distance.
Living up to the first word in the title, “Cold War’ begins in wintry chill. So much of the severe beauty of its visual scheme derives from the coldness of its black and white. Darkness vies with light. They rub against each other, but without friction, hence no heat. The contrast is striking with the black and white in “Roma.” (Cuarón served as his own cinematographer. Lukasz Zal, who with Ryszard Lenczewski earned an Oscar nomination for their stunning work on “Ida,” shot “Cold War” for Pawlikowski.) Black and white in “Roma” is more a spectrum of grays. But not gray as drabness and mackerel skies. Instead, it’s the delicacy of memory drawn out from the past and sustained over decades.
Both movies balance family and politics, but with the ratio in each film almost diametrically opposite. One of the most stunning scenes in “Roma” involves a demonstration-turned-riot (the delicacy of Cuarón’s narrow palette contrasts with the glorious vigor of his camerawork). But even that great set piece is part of a larger narrative framework that involves childbirth. A child figures in “Cold War,” as does (briefly) a very different family from the one in “Roma.” But that family is the direct result of political considerations — one more reason for the film’s predominant chilliness.
The decision to shoot in black and white isn’t just aesthetic, it’s a way of subtly underscoring the past-ness of each story.
“Cold War” has no equivalent to the family home in “Roma.” The entire world could exist in that house, everything from dog droppings to wonder. Yes, “Roma” leaves behind that house and the title neighborhood. There’s a New Year’s celebration in the country, a visit to the ocean, as well as talk of “Quebec.” Yet the movie’s centripetal, always pulling back to the house, the family that lives there, the emotions that fill it.
Within its 85 minutes, “Cold War” achieves a kind of sweep that’s at once epic and impacted: touching down in four countries, spanning 15 years, and, as its title indicates, summoning up how geopolitics could hold hostage daily lives and deform romance even at its most powerful.
Yet Pawlikowski also shows how geopolitics could itself be the prisoner of larger cultural forces. The folk troupe is an attempt to exploit nationalism as a Communist propaganda tool. Jazz suffuses the portion of the film set in Paris during the ’50s. The sense of invention and experiment in the music speaks of Western freedom with an eloquence neither word nor image could match. The geopolitics of music culminates in the movie’s single most astonishing sequence. Zula, in a nightclub with Wiktor, hears Bill Haley and the Comets’ recording of “Rock Around the Clock.” She dances with abandon, as motion, emotion, and exhilaration come together — and it’s absolutely glorious. The might of the Soviet military all but melts as against the sheer galvanic force of rock ’n’ roll.
Music is a key part of another striking sequence in “Cold War.” With a movie visible in the background, Wiktor sits in a studio with some other musicians, recording its score. In what may be the oddest — yet also most pleasing — similarity between the two films, “Roma,” too, has a scene in which a film plays in the background. This one takes place in a grand old Mexico City movie palace. Cleo and her lover are in the theater. They sit in the foreground, discussing a crucial personal matter. The scene may be the closest “Roma” comes to an absolute balance between visual beauty and emotional force.
Of course the scene involves a movie, as the one in “Cold War” does. Grace notes of a very high order, they remind us that what’s most significant about the movie gods isn’t that they move in strange and mysterious ways. Or even sometimes in lovely ways. It’s that they’re movie gods.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.