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Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

“COLD WAR” My rating: A-

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“She’s got something,” observes a Parisian roue after taking in an eyeful and earful of Zula, the troubled heroine of “Cold War.”

No kidding.  As portrayed by Joanna Kulig, Zula radiates slow-smoldering eroticism and more than a hint of working-class voluptuousness. It’s easy to understand how a man — even a sophisticated one — could endure a long search through time and space to be with her.

“Cold War” — an Oscar nominee for foreign language film, director and cinematography — comes to us from Pawel Pawlikowski, who a couple of years back delivered the Academy Award-winning foreign film “Ida,”  about a young nun who discovers she is the child of Holocaust victims.

Like that earlier masterpiece, “Cold War” unfolds during Poland’s decades as a Soviet satellite state and has been shot in mind-blowingly beautiful black and white.

Pawlikowski’s subject is a passionate love affair played out against  the political and social fluctuations of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Reportedly he was inspired by the story of his own parents, who maintained an on-and-off relationship for more than 40 years.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musical scholar traveling post-war Poland to  record rural folk songs.  That obsession leads to a job as artistic director of a state-sponsored school devoted to the preservation of traditional Polish culture. Hordes of desperate young people audition for the program; among them is Zula (Kulig), who initially doesn’t stand out against all the other healthy blondes hoping for a spot.

But Zula is clever and manipulative; she immediate gloms onto a girl with a terrific voice and suggests they sing a duet. The other girl’s talent will mask Zula’s limited abilities while giving Zula’s impressive “it” factor a chance to kick in.

Indeed, before long Zula is one of the company’s featured performers. There are better singers and dancers,  but none can match Zula’s understated yet always-ready sexuality. She even comes with a  back story about having done time for murdering the father who molested her.

In no time at all Zula is sleeping with Wiktor, who is twice her age and earning a national reputation for his beautifully-staged concerts of traditional song and dance.  But the purist in him rebels when the authorities demand that the troupe perform newly-penned songs about land reform against a gigantic portrait of Josef Stalin; he lays a plan to defect with Zula  on a tour stop in East Berlin.

When Zula fails to show up for their rendezvous at a checkpoint between East and West Berlin (this is a decade before the construction of the notorious wall) a disappointed Wiktor goes it alone.

But the paths of these two star-crossed lovers will intersect repeatedly over the years.

(more…)

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