Black-and-white photography has been almost nonexistent in mainstream movies for the past fifty years. Modern audiences are notoriously resistant to it, a phenomenon which led to the colorization craze of some years back. That this is a tragedy is beyond obvious for anyone who cares about the art of cinema. A single representative image—the shadow of Clifton Webb towering over his crouched form on the staircase, toward the end of Otto Preminger’s Laura—is enough to suggest the mysterious, atmospheric beauty that black-and-white photography in the hands of a master (in this instance, Joseph LaShelle) can present.
In the 1970s, audiences tolerated black and white in a few period films—The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein. In the past few years, the Motion Picture Academy has actually granted Oscars to a couple of black-and-white films—Michel Hanavicius’ The Artist and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. A couple of other B&W films—Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing—have had art-house success. The future of black and white, however, may well be in the hands of streaming services, which are less dependent on box office receipts than films released to theaters.
Two recent films that suggest as much are Pawlikowski’s Cold War, available on Amazon Prime, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, on Netflix. From the evidence of these films, this is wonderful news.
Roma was arguably the big winner at this year’s Oscar ceremony—a Best Picture nominee, and winner for Best Foreign Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography, all personal wins for Cuaron. The film does full justice to the esthetic possibilities of black and white, but even more it demonstrates its value in setting a mood, and even telling a story. The first shot in Roma, shown over the opening credits, is a close-up of patio tiles splashed with soapy cleaning water. The image, workaday and yet arresting, serves as a metaphor for the entire film.
Set in 1970, Roma is about Cleo Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a housemaid and nanny working for an affluent family in Mexico City. Cuaron’s camera tracks Cleo through the spacious house as she cleans, scrubs, does laundry, cleans up after the family dog. She speaks Spanish with her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Sofia’s four children, but her native Mixtec with Adela (Nancy Garcia), the family cook.
On their days off, Cleo and Adela usually go to the movies with their boyfriends. But one day Cleo and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) decide to rent a room instead. We see that Fermin isn’t exactly the best-adjusted person; in the room, he gives Cleo a demonstration of his martial arts moves, using a shower curtain rod as a weapon, full-frontal and making a self-aggrandizing speech.
A few weeks later, he disappears immediately upon Cleo telling him she’s pregnant. Like the audience, Cleo is saddened but not particularly surprised.
Sofia is having problems of her own. At the beginning of the film, her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is preparing for a business trip to Quebec; as the film progresses, Sofia is obliged to give the children ever more elaborate excuses as to why their father still hasn’t come home.
Meanwhile, there are even bigger troubles outside the home, symbolized by the military band that marches regularly past Sofia’s house. The threats are everywhere: a holiday trip to a relative’s country house is punctuated by a forest fire that, Cuaron strongly implies, was deliberately set. Cleo’s trip to a furniture store to buy a crib turns into one of the most horrific, heartbreaking sequences in any recent film (no fair saying why).
Despite everything, Cleo endures. She clearly loves the family she works for, even as the treatment she receives at their hands is considerably less than kind. One sequence toward the end, set on a beach, demonstrates her love and loyalty beyond all doubt. Technically, it is astonishing; if Cuaron had never shot another scene in his life, that sequence alone would establish him as one of the great masters of the tracking shot, beside Orson Welles and Max Ophuls. Esthetically, the scene is breathtaking, the sparkling surface of the ocean underlined by shadowy, terrifying depths. Dramatically, it moves us beyond words. Cleo’s heroism, which will forever remain unknown to the larger world, is magnificent beyond anything in Fermin’s demented dreams.
Roma depicts a society which men such as Antonio and Fermin have turned into a mess, and which women such as Sofia and Cleo must hold together however they can. Cuaron includes some inside jokes—at one point the family goes to the movies to see Marooned, a clear progenitor of Cuaron’s previous Oscar winner, Gravity. But Roma altogether is an ennobling film. The final shot, lingering on the outside stairway up which Cleo has just carried a load of laundry, serves as a benediction for her, and for the audience.
If Roma carries on the tradition of Neo-Realism, Cold War is a thrilling revival of film noir. Both films are enhanced and darkened by politics; for Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), the star-crossed lovers of Cold War, the murderous Stalinism that engulfed Poland after World War II seals their fate.
Cold War begins in 1949. Wiktor and his fellow musicologists are touring rural Poland—much as Bela Bartok did Hungary a quarter-century before—collecting folk songs and auditioning young singers and dancers to create a national troupe. Zula is one of the hopefuls; she isn’t the most talented, but Wiktor notices something special about her. Part of Zula’s allure is the aura of danger she projects. She matter-of-factly tells Wiktor, “My father mistook me for my mother, and I used a knife to show him the difference.”
Wiktor and Zula quickly begin an affair, although it almost comes to grief when Zula admits to Wiktor that the Communist officials in charge have ordered her to spy on him. It is about this time that the local commissar devises a plan to have the folk troupe expand its tours from within Poland to throughout the Eastern bloc. But before that, he tells Wiktor and his colleagues, the troupe must tweak its repertoire to include more encomiums to Comrade Stalin. Wiktor remains silent. Irena (Agata Kulesza) says this would violate the purity of the troupe’s mission, but Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) falls all over himself expressing the gratitude of the troupe in being given the opportunity to praise Stalin to the world.
Between Irena and Kaczmarek, guess which one gets to keep his job. For Wiktor, this is the last straw, and he begins devising plans for Zula and himself to escape to the West. Zula, however, is intimidated by the thought of leaving Poland; she may not agree with everything happening there, but at least her country gives her a sense of shelter and identity.
It is this irreconcilable difference between Wiktor and Zula defines their story, played out over fifteen years played out in Poland, Berlin, Paris. Cold War bears some resemblance to classic European movies of lovers at odds (i.e. Jules et Jim)but adds an intolerant political system that demands conformity at all costs.
Tall, ravaged-looking Kot and baby-faced, beestung-lipped Kulig make a compelling couple. (I hesitate to mention Bogart and Bacall, but Kot and Kulig are indeed reminiscent of some classic stars—Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden in his case, Gloria Grahame and Ida Lupino in hers.) The real glories of Cold War, however, are the black-and-white photography of Lukasz Zal and the music of Marcin Masecki. Zal’s images unfold like the workings of fate in settings as varied as a smoky Paris club and a ruined country church.
Masecki’s score, ranging from robust folk music and cool jazz, marries with Zal’s photography to create an unforgettable mood. The highlight of the score is the folk song “Two Hearts, Four Eyes,” which appears in different forms throughout the film, permutating with the protagonists’ hopes and fears.
Roma, despite the tragedy and anguish that appear throughout, is in the end a quietly triumphant film. Cold War, in contrast, sustains its melancholy mood through to its sorrowful end by a rural Polish road. They are both films of chiaroscuro, exploring the depths of light and shadow as a way of emphasizing plot and character. They are both films that will haunt your dreams, and that are more than deserving of that overworked word of praise, “masterpiece.”