From now through October, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
After starting his career with intimate, often claustrophobic relationship dramas, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski took a long, necessary pause and emerged with a cinematic language that feels entirely new. His latest, Cold War (★★★1/2), continues the icy precision he fashioned in his 2014 stunner Ida – wisely reuniting with sharp, sensual D.P. Lukasz Zal – but with a less youthful, beguiling outlook. It’s an unexpected progression, as he historically regresses, backtracking to 1950s Poland to track how the country’s post-war spark of hope chilled with the rise of communism. Sprightlier in disposition, yet more curtly devastating in collective emotional damage, Cold War becomes a gorgeously conflicted study of self-destructive passion.
Pawlikowski’s recently revitalized national empathy is nicely represented in the initial setting, a folk music academy working on their latest production. The first images we see are of local townspeople, faces worn by time and struggle, singing the folk songs from their area. Recording them is musical conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Ida standout Agata Kulesza), who appears just long enough to establish her ideals and see them swiftly dismantled. Their Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) recognizes the national tides turning, and starts shifting the altruistic venture into a vehicle for Stalinist propaganda. That throws a wrench in the romance brewing between Wiktor and fierce singer Zula (Joanna Kulig, another Ida reprise), their bond running wildly hot and cold at the slightest miscommunication.
There’s a streak of opportunism that complicates Zula’s character early on and adds tension & disappointment to Wiktor’s botched escape plans. The first hint of Zula’s personality comes when describing why she was arrested for stabbing her father: “He mistook me for my mom, so I used a knife to show him the difference.” She’s not one to accept domesticity easily and isn’t great at disguising her blunt honesty. So naturally hers and Wiktor’s is a slow, yet hopeful, dance across countries their unwieldy romance enduring over time, distance and supplementary relationships. “I was just with the woman of my life,” Wiktor says to a Parisian girlfriend, whose sole response is “Oh good. Let me go to sleep, then.” In Cold War, passions run hot and quick, with everyone left casually adapting to major personal and political shifts. Escape is never truly peace, though, the restless couple is reminded of that every time they find ostensible bliss.
Not everyone who’s escaped political oppression will agree with the headstrong choices the two lovers make in the third act. It clearly conveys Pawlikowski’s own inextricable affinity for his country and its historical hardships, recognizing that’s not something easily abandoned. That conflict, of survival and happiness, drives the film between jaunty pleasure and sudden devastation. Neither he or his characters settle on either for long, even at the embittering end. At times that restlessness hinders certain moments from sinking in, but it does result in a brisk, jazzy experience with enough of a melancholic undertow to linger. Even through rust & decay, what feels sacred & true remains.
Alice Rohrwacher has little nostalgia for the past or comfort in the contemporary. The Italian director makes that vivily clear with Happy as Lazzaro (★★★★), a neorealist social critique grandly warped by the naive whimsy of classic fables. That playful twist is a relief, given the cruel manipulations Rohrwacher shows pervading characters from all financial classes. Set in pastoral village Inviolata, at an unclear period decades in the past, the oppressed villagers toil away farming tobacco. Unpaid for their labor, and unable to lodge complaints against their venal Marchesa, the only relief they find is in taking advantage of endlessly accommodating peasant Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo).
Right from the start, Lazzaro is a symbol of pure innocence So it’s hardly surprising his kindness is leveraged at every turn, by villagers & privileged employers alike. That’s not to suggest those cozily sitting at the top aren’t still abhorrent, self-serving trash. Rohrwacher simply complicates the dynamic by revealing the sociological consequences of labor abuse, and how many use it as justification for their own cruelty. Characters like posh, superficial teen Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), though, take sadistic delight in the manipulation of others. When he takes a particular interest in Lazzaro, it feels like this historical critique of sharecropping takes a turn for the subtly homo-erotic. A naive boy who doesn’t understand manipulation at all, Lazzaro fixates particularly on Tancredi’s direct attention as opposed to the communal demands of his village.
About an hour in, though, the historical inconsistencies mount to a point where a blustering, disembodied force of immense wind descends from the sky to shatter the idyllic ignorance of Inviolata. Without revealing Rohrwacher’s mythic and time-bending midway surprises, we suddenly jump to the cold, decrepit present day. Older reincarnations of the characters are left coping with an even bleaker economic paradigm, while Lazzaro wanders around as blissfully ignorant as ever. Not all the villagers are present, and the specters of the nameless absent are hard to shake. Rohrwacher maintains both the beguiling intimacy and windswept grandeur of the first act, but it’s now within a world of ghosts and shattered societal contracts.
Through this transition Rohrwacher holds onto a whismical magical realism to bridge the two acts. In both the sun-kissed wheat of rural Inviolata and the grimy streets of urban Italy, Lazzaro has a kind of vacant wonder on his face. He’s hardly the only one still caught in the power paradigms of times long past, as the other characters aide their former master in spite their own personal hardships. Kindness doesn’t help you get ahead, but it can help you find joy in the moment. Whenever Happy as Lazzaro risks falling into hollow misery, Rohrwacher invigorates her characters with a dreamlike return to youth or a magical musical respite.
That rejuvenating atmosphere is the only way our present social climate can be depicted without us crumpling under its depressing weight. In the closing minutes, though, Happy as Lazzaro takes a brutal turn that, even considering the generations-wide cycles of privilege already detailed, feels somewhat mean-spirited. Nowadays, though, cruelty simply feels like the order of the day. A societies, we’re no longer equipped with the hope necessary to recognize a bonafide Jesus figure when we see one. Rohrwacher wrenchingly envisions our world as one that’s conditioned to expect the worst of human nature. For a time, though, Happy as Lazzaro captures the bittersweet levity that comes from looking for the best in each other.