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Could the 91st Oscars be the first in 38 years with multiple black-and-white best picture Oscar nominees? And the first ever with multiple best picture nominees entirely in a language other than English? Though it sounds crazy, it’s actually quite possible. After hugely successful North American premieres at this week’s Telluride Film Festival, Alfonso Cuaron‘s Spanish-language Roma looks like a very good bet to snag a nom in the category — and Polish-language Cold War, the latest film from Pawel Pawlikowski (who, incidentally, closely consulted with Cuaron on Roma), could wind up alongside it.
Cold War, a period piece drama that marks Pawlikowski’s first film since 2014’s Ida won the best foreign language film Oscar, had its world premiere at May’s Cannes Film Festival, where Pawlikowski was awarded the fest’s best director prize. And since it arrived at Telluride and began screening in North America for the first time on Friday (I caught it Sunday), it has only continued to pick up steam.
The film unfolds over 15 years — 1949 through 1964 — in the aftermath of World War II, which left Poland under the Soviets’ Communist rule. In Warsaw, two gorgeous locals, Zula (Joanna Kulig, in her third Pawlikowski film after small parts in The Woman in the Fifth and Ida) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), meet when Zula auditions to be a singer in the touring company of folk music performers that Wiktor conducts. They quickly fall in love, but encounter numerous government-related impediments that threaten to keep them apart and change them both as people. (Fun fact: the characters are named after Pawlikowski’s own parents, to whom the film is also dedicated.)
Some have been frustrated by one of Pawlikowski’s most unusual creative choices with Cold War — making abrupt jumps in time — and the unanswered questions they leave in their wake. But others have appreciated these snapshots — which powerfully communicate the degree to which a relationships can change over time — and the opportunities they provide to imagine what happened in between. To me, the film is very much in the tradition of many of cinema’s greatest love stories — spanning Dark Victory (1939) and Casablanca (1942) all the way through Once (2007) or La La Land (2016) — in which the gods seem to be working against the couple the audience is rooting for.
Because many — even some Academy members — are resistant to movies with subtitles, it is always an uphill climb for a non-English-language film to land a best picture Oscar nom. But I think that massive critical acclaim (the film has a 93 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com) and strong word-of-mouth (everyone at this fest, at least, is talking about it) — on top of the recent demographic changes to the Academy (the group has added a ton of international members over the last few years) — could propel Cold War over that hurdle, just as it did Amour six years ago, and a handful of other films before that. The fact that the film’s running time is just 85 minutes will also convince some who may be on the fence to give it a chance.
Regardless, I can’t imagine Poland not making the film its entry for best foreign-language film, which would immediately make it a frontrunner for that prize. I would also keep a close eye on Pawlikowski for a best director nom (the directing branch loves to nominate non-American auteurs) and Lukasz Zal, who was Oscar-nominated for his lensing of Ida, for a best cinematography nom (the cinematographers branch lives for beautiful black-and-white, not to mention a film shot in Academy-ratio). And, in a fair world, Kulig, a star in Poland who has talent and beauty and magnetism that reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence, would not only be a serious contender for a best actress nom, but would quickly become an in-demand actress in Hollywood, too.
Cold War will next be seen at the Toronto and New York film fests, ahead of a Dec. 21 release via Amazon.
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