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COLD WAR (ZIMNA WOJNA)

Producer: Tanya Seghatchian and Ewa Puszczynska
Director: Pawek Pawlikowski
Writer: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotri Borkowski
Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cedric Kahn, Jeanne Valibar, Adam Ferency, Adam Woronowicz and Anna Zagorska
Studio: Amazon Studios

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In his Oscar-winning “Ida,” Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski offered an emotionally devastating commentary on his country’s history during World War II and its communist aftermath through the story of a young postulant who leaves a Catholic convent in search of her past. His new film also confronts the grim reality of Poland’s post-war experience, but does so by following an intimate relationship as tempestuous as the titular standoff between the eastern and western blocks against which the story is set. (Reportedly his script was inspired by his own parents’ stormy marriage.)

The plot is, in purely narrative terms, a very simple one. In 1949 world-weary musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his acerbic partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) are being taken around the countryside by a bumptious driver named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). Their effort may have originated in a quest to preserve endangered folk-music forms, but it turns into a government-supported enterprise to audition local talent for a troupe of folk singer-dancers, an ensemble that can present national culture to the world—and, of course, serve as a propaganda tool for the socialist regime.

One of the young ladies they encounter is a spitfire named Zula (Joanna Kulig), who might not have the purest voice in the world, and will have to be taught to dance properly, but whose vibrant personality marks her as a prospective star. Wiktor chooses her for placement in their new school, despite Agata’s misgivings, and soon he and his protégé are passionately in love.

The film follows the relationship over the course of decades as it burns hot and cold, just as the reality between east-west does. The troupe gains recognition in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, and eventually is employed as a political tool in the west as well. Its success makes the career of Kaczmarek, who becomes the manager and compliantly follows the orders of his government superiors.

But the lovers, while both yearning to break free of rigid control from above, can never shed their selfish needs. Each suspects the other of betraying their secrets to Kaczmarek, and not without cause. Moments of utter commitment alternate with angrily accusatory outbursts and ruptures, until, when they hastily plan escape to the west, Zulu decides not to go through with it, leaving Wiktor to make a life for himself as a solitary exile.

But that does not end things. Wiktor will travel to Yugoslavia to see her again, endangering himself in the process (indeed, he does fall under scrutiny of the security services, and there is a chance he will wind up in the USSR). Zula eventually finds her way to Paris and reunites with Wiktor, and the old passion is reignited, though so too is their habit of hurting one another. It is, in effect, the apparently universal tale of a man and a woman who can’t live with one another, but can’t endure being apart; it’s just that in this case it’s played out on both sides of the iron curtain as the world is changing.

“Cold War” is a challenging work, marked by abrupt time shifts and narrative ellipses fashioned by Pawlikowski and editor Jaroslaw Kamiński that the viewer must work to understand, but it’s made with exquisite care, just as “Ida” was. Shot by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, as the earlier film was, in black-and-white and the boxy Academy ratio, the images are subtly composed, but designed for emotional as much as visual impact, with changes in contrast mirroring those of mood. Equally important is the extraordinarily eclectic score, which ranges from folk numbers and Stalin-era proletarian pieces to jazz, western popular songs and snatches of Bach; it too reflects the mercurial inner lives of Wiktor and Zula.

So do the intense performances of Kulig and Kot, who hold little, if anything, back in conveying the lovers’ radical swings. Hers is the splashier turn, since Zula is the utterly extroverted part of the pair, but Kot anchors things with his more studied, somber approach. And while Kulesza doesn’t get as much opportunity as you might wish to express Irena’s cynicism, Szyc paints an incisive portrait of a bland apparatchik who makes the most of the chances for advancement that come his way.

Pawlikowski’s film is a brilliantly melancholy portrayal of two people who can’t resist one another but are doomed to destroy their chance of enduring happiness, as well as the oppressive system they’re trapped in.

FOXTROT

Producer: Eitan Masuri, Jonathan Doweck, Michael Weber, Viola Fuegen, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet and Michel Merkt
Director: Samuel Maoz
Writer: Samuel Maoz
Stars: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray, Gefen Barkai, Dekel Adin, Shaul Amir, Itay Exlroad, Danny Isserles, Itamar Rotschild, Roi Miller, Arie Tcherner, Yehuda Almagor, Shira Haas and Karin Ugowski
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

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The titular dance, as is explained in a scene from Samuel Maoz’s haunting “Foxtrot,” brings one back to the very position where you began, which describes the sad symmetry in the film, a tragicomic critique of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, which, while putting the lives of both of victims and victimizers at risk, creates a morally bankrupt society.

The film falls into three distinct segments. In the first, well-to-do couple Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are informed by a somber IDF officer that their son Jonathan, who is serving his required tour, has been killed in action. Dafna collapses and is heavily sedated; Michael goes through a paroxysm of grief, not ameliorated by the arrival of his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) and a military rabbi (Itamar Rothschild) who provides details of the planned funeral, or by a visit to his institutionalized mother (Karin Ugowski) to tell her of her grandson’s death. This harrowing portion of the film ends with a shocking revelation that only increases the family’s anger.

Suddenly the focus shifts to Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who is part of a four-man detachment manning a lonely roadblock in a remote area. They raise the crossbar occasionally for camels lumbering by, and even more rarely for cars after they’ve searched them and—in some cases—humiliated the passengers. Their main preoccupation, it seems, consists of estimating how quickly their metal sleeping shed is sinking into the mud by rolling cans of the potted meat they eat down the incline of the floor. Then a tragedy occurs, and a military cover-up is begun.

The third section takes us back to Michael and Dafna, who have separated over a dispute that will only gradually be revealed. He approaches her to seek a reconciliation; she responds by sharing a cake she’s baked; they also share a reefer, and then greet their daughter, who notes how close and happy they seem. We then return to see the outcome of the tragedy at Jonathan’s checkpoint.

The foregoing précis has deliberately omitted several twists that occur in “Foxtrot,” like the moves of the dance along the way to its final placement exactly where it started. The structure of the film mimics that structure, but in unexpected ways. The changes are also reflected in the different styles Maoz and his cinematographer Giora Bejach adopt for the three segments. The first part is presented in stark, intense fashion as the devastating news sinks in and the family members react in understandably ferocious ways. The checkpoint portion is portrayed in a weird, hallucinatory perspective that emphasizes the otherworldly character of the landscape and the little cruelties that arise as the tiny squadron goes throughout the paces of their assignment while their boredom and angst deepen.

The final segment lurches back into realism, but one touched with an aching sense of sadness and regret, as well as a degree of pain that can barely be articulated. The last-minute reveal comes as a punch to the stomach, and feels exactly right.

The performances are unerring, with Ashkenazi—recently seen as Itzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe”—the anchor as the distraught, furious father. Adler seconds him as Dafna, running the gamut of emotions from unfathomable grief to unexpected joy and finally resignation. Shiray’s assignment is perhaps the most difficult of all; he has to present an almost blank face as a man benumbed by what his government compels him to do. He succeeds by virtually disappearing into a semi-awake state, presenting a portrait of a sleepwalking ghost of a human being. The remainder of the cast provides able support, with Ugowski creating an unforgettable cameo as Michael’s hard but fragile mother.

“Foxtrot” is a complex, challenging film that uses a singular tragedy to illuminate the dark implications of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, for both sides.