A few weeks ago the Oscars crowned their winners and among the contenders for several of the night’s awards were two films that had quite a lot in common. “Cold War” and “Roma” are both black and white foreign language films (one in Polish and the other in Spanish) that each received nominations for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography and they both earned perfect scores from my reviews. While Roma walked away with all three of the Academy Awards that both films were nominated for and received seven additional Oscar nominations, that doesn’t necessarily make it a superior film to “Cold War” does it? Could it be that “Roma” just benefited from more buzz and a better campaign? Well I’m here to put these two pictures to the test. In the first Versus of 2019 I’m going to look at both of these beautifully shot black and white examinations of life and decide which one is truly superior. This is “Roma” Versus “Cold War”.
For this battle I’ll be looking at five different categories to determine which Oscar nominated foreign film was truly the better product. While “Roma” earned more nominations and wins and was the more talked about picture at the Oscars, “Cold War” surprised by being nominated despite being ignored by the Golden Globes and it’s possible that its failure may have simply been a product of a lack of heavy Oscar campaigning. It’s only appropriate that the two films may forever be compared to each other because of their style and awards season nominations. So, to make this decision I will judge these films on their acting, cinematography, direction, story, and, considering that they are both foreign films that take place during tumultuous times in history, how well they capture the culture and worlds they present and how those are build into the story which I will call “World Building”. Now, let’s see which of these foreign films is truly better. Let the battle begin!
ROUND 1: THE ACTING
Both “Roma” and “Cold War” contain some awesome performances worthy of praise. “Roma” is the only one of the two that received Academy Award nominations earning nods for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress while “Cold War” has earned more praise overseas including at the European Film Awards where it earned nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress winning the Actress honor. But we’re not looking at awards here. We’re looking at quality which is not always the same thing. So which film contains the better performances? Let’s find out?
Let’s start with “Roma”. This Mexican film packs the larger cast but that does not necessarily mean the quality is there. Possibly the most impressive bit of trivia about “Roma” is that the Oscar nominated lead actress Yalitza Aparicio went into the film with no acting experience or formal training and yet she became the core of the production as the entire picture focuses on her character Cleo’s experiences in Mexico City in the early 70s. She is joined by Marina de Tavira who plays Sofía, the family mother that Cleo works for, and these really are the main performances in the film. Both actresses are spectacular especially Aparicio as Cleo who we see encounter some very real life struggles over a year’s time. However, while I praised the performances in my review, in hindsight the raw portrayal of these characters leaves just the tiniest bit to be desired. We could relate to these characters yes, but there isn’t quite enough here for us to say we truly knew these people and that’s probably a product of the type of story it’s trying to tell more than poor acting. Still if the goal of “Roma” is to present us with people who feel real, act natural, and undergo life changes we can all understand, it accomplishes that feat and it’s all thanks to actors who go all in when embracing the material.
“Cold War” however contains what one might call more traditional acting with material meant to present a more theatrical story and thus demanding a more artistic and aggressive approach from lead actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. Kulig and Kot play Zula and Wiktor, lovers torn apart by the realities of post-war Poland who reunite and rekindle their relationship across two decades. For me Kulig and Kot had much more complicated material to work with than the performers in “Roma”. The picture is squarely put on their shoulders and they are challenged to present people who have evolved over numerous years instead of just a single year. While some might say their rekindling of love is unconvincing because it feels like only minute have gone by between them I actually found this to be an impressive detail as the performers give us a strong relationship that no amount of time seems to dull. Kulig and Kot sell their performances in a way only the best performers can with material like this which, to me, is proof that their lack of Academy Awards love was the result of a lack of effective campaigning more than anything else. With love stories, especially tragic ones, being among the most popular narratives in all of film it’s hard to sell a movie like this and make it both believable and engaging. Part of why “Cold War” works so well is because the performers add that special touch needed to help this particular love story stand out.
While I respect and love the performances in “Roma” my point for this round goes to “Cold War” which in my opinion presented more challenging material for the actors to sell and more memorable characters overall.
SCORE: “Roma” – 0 “Cold War” – 1
ROUND 2: CINEMATOGRAPHY
Both “Roma” and “Cold War” earned Academy Award nominations for cinematography in 2019. In fact three foreign films were included in the category with Germany’s “Never Look Away” also in the mix. While “Roma” went on to win the award “Cold War” utilized many similar elements to showcase its own story. In fact the cinematography of both films is downright breathtaking and smooth making this a very difficult category to judge. But there can only be one winner so let’s see who earns the next point.
“Roma” truly earns its Oscar win with some of the most beautiful camerawork I’ve ever seen. Alfonzo Cuaron acted as both director and cinematographer on the film in order to bring his vision to life and you can feel the careful attention to detail and the passion in the visual aesthetic as you watch the story play out. Unbroken shots and carefully laid camera angles as well as a particular attention to how long each shot remains in place all help drive home not just the beauty of the scene, but the mood and tone of the project as a whole as well. The whole thing feels like we are watching a documentary of reality and I think that’s exactly what Cuaron was going for. It’s beautiful, it’s artistic, and it’s chaotic when it needs to be. The whole premise of Cuaron’s masterpiece is to capture a human experience. What better way to do that than with some grade-A camerawork and editing that puts you right in the middle of the action as if you were an observer in the moment?
That’s not to say “Cold War” isn’t immersive either. In fact many times the cinematography works exactly in the same way as “Roma”, putting you right into the scene and making you feel like a fly on the wall in an important and private moment. However “Cold War’s” cinematography feels a bit more cinematic and is less fluid while lacking the careful planning of “Roma”. “Cold War” is still a lovely film to look at and is incredibly shot and edited in its own right. However it’s clear we’re watching a film here which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if I weren’t judging it against a project that managed to feel so genuine and real in how it was shot and presented. “Cold War’s” cinematography could own almost any other picture from 2018, but in this case the one film it can’t defeat is “Roma”.
“Roma” gets its first point in round two and we are all tied up.
SCORE: “Roma” – 1 “Cold War” – 1
ROUND 3: DIRECTION
Another tough category, the direction of both “Roma” and “Cold War” has proven to be awards worthy. Alfonzo Cuaron earned the Golden Globe and Oscar for “Roma” while Pawel Pawlikowski earned and Academy Award nomination and the prestigious Best Director honor at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2018. So clearly it’s no joke that both filmmakers have proven their talents through these works. Since direction involves how well these filmmakers capture their vision and both of these directors also WROTE their respective films based on the lives of cherished loved ones it’s no surprise that both “Roma” and “Cold War” feel like intimate and sincere viewing experiences. But, which director captured their stories the best?
Well let’s look at “Roma”, a film Alfonzo Cuaron wrote and directed that was inspired by Cuaron’s own upbringing in Colonia Roma. Cuaron sought to capture a snapshot of reality in film form without making an outright documentary and he succeeded in a big way. “Roma” is immersive and beautiful and feels like a film made with love and care. You can tell this was a passion project for Cuaron and he truly wanted to get it right. Not one shot is wasted in this movie with pretty much every second dedicated to telling a fully realized story. “Roma” is truly Cuaron’s “baby” so to speak and he was essential in almost every aspect of its creation serving as cinematographer, writer, producer, editor, and, of course, director. Furthermore the realism of the presentation drives home the “based-on-real-life” concept more than almost any film before it. Cuaron’s meticulous attention to detail and commitment to the work may not have given us the most exciting movie, but it gave us one that does what few dramas ever tend to do right by forgoing fantasy in favor of a more grounded approach.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is also based on his real life loved ones. He wrote and directed the picture based on the lives of his own parents although the inspiration is said to have been loose at best. Pawlikowski’s work feels like it’s much more “Hollywood” than “Roma” but the sincerity is still there. The problem with “Cold War” when compared to “Roma” is that “Cold War” does take maybe too much time to develop many segments of the story while “Roma” feels like it’s perfectly paced. “Cold War” speeds through the years, barely taking a breath at times, which isn’t really a problem until you put it side by side with its much slower and more carefully crafted competition. Pawlikowski is directly involved in this process so it’s on him and his staff to make sure that pacing is right and gets the story across as perfectly and smoothly as possible. I give Pawlikowski credit though. The swift pacing does feel intentional to capture the long history of these two lovers and make the tragic end all the more poignant.
While both films are very well done and both directors should be very proud of the stories they brought to the big screen I felt that “Roma” was a much more effective representation of Curon’s vision where Pawlikowski’s work feels like there’s only the slightest bit that is left to be desired. Point barely goes to “Roma”.
SCORE: “Roma” – 2 “Cold War” – 1
ROUND 4: WORLD BUILDING
A neat aspect of both “Roma” and “Cold War” is that they both take place with the backdrop of darker times in their respective country’s histories. “Cold War” is set in Poland during, well, the Cold War and post WWII while “Roma” takes place a bit later in the early 70s during the Mexican Dirty War. Both films attempt to present the worlds around them and work them into the story, establishing not only a setting but also an idea of life at the time. So which film uses its backdrop and time period more effectively? Let’s examine.
“Roma” takes place over the course of a year from 1970 until 1971 and really doesn’t touch on the turmoil of the time until late in the picture when Cleo finds herself caught in the middle of the Corpus Christi Massacre, a moment that drives the film towards its tragic yet hopeful final act. Otherwise though the politics of the time are seldom touched on and the setting is used more as a backdrop than anything else. Where “Roma” works is in its use of the atmosphere and backdrop of Colonia Roma, the neighborhood in Mexico City that gives the film its name, which is where Alfonzo Cuaron grew up. Seeing as the story was inspired by his youth why not film it there? “Roma” embraces the and separation of lifestyles among the people in Roma at the time. Otherwise though, it’s easy to forget when this movie takes place or to understand the underlying significance of its setting. It could have been filmed anywhere at any time as far as the viewer is concerned and may have still been just as effective a story.
On the other hand “Cold War” is very dependent on not only location, but the time period as well. While “Roma” is named after its setting, “Cold War” is named after the unsure times of world politics during which it is set. Paris, Poland and other backdrops are presented throughout the picture a Wiktor tries to escape post war Poland and Zula feels content staying within the established system. As they reunite time after time we see the culture of the period take its toll and Wiktor even ends up in prison at one point for abandoning Poland. From the very beginning the Cold War and propaganda are a driving part of the story that forces these two lovers apart making the time period somewhat of a character in and of itself in the larger narrative. One of my favorite things about both “Roma” and “Cold War” is how the world seems to keep turning even as the central story unfolds, but with “Cold War” this feels much more apparent and even heightens the stakes for these two lovers as it becomes harder and harder for them to stay together. Even when it’s easy the state of the world impacts their happiness as much as their own demons. The settings and period aren’t just details, they feel integral to the story and that only becomes truer the more the film plays out.
While “Roma” has a nice setting and provides great insight into the culture and some of the conflict of Mexico City in the 1970s, “Cold War” builds its world much more fully with the time period and politics and settings all much more integral into the story. When it came to this decision I found I could imagine “Roma” taking place at anytime and anywhere in Mexico. “Cold War” doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the same story with the same problems at any other time or place. “Cold War” ties it all up with its second point as we head into the final round.
SCORE: “Roma” – 2 “Cold War” – 2
ROUND 5: THE STORY
“Roma” and ‘Cold War” tell two very different stories and while it might seem redundant considering how much I’ve talked about their narratives already I thought it was warranted that both stories be looked at away from the direction and performances. “Roma” presents the tale of a live-in housekeeper and her managing the struggles and changes of life while “Cold War” focuses on a pair of lovers torn apart time and time again and still finding their way to each other. Which story resonates more on the big screen? Let’s take a look.
With “Roma” the story is all about the realism. Cleo is a live-in housekeeper who just rolls with the motions of life as they come, including an unplanned pregnancy. This kind of story resonates with anyone watching it as there’s no fantasy, no unbelievable expectations, just a woman going through life while the world around her slowly turns. It’s immersive, it’s relatable, and it’s the kind of story that I think movies were made to tell. It’s not exactly the most exciting story. With “Roma” you have to make a conscious effort to invest in it to a degree in order to appreciate what it has to tell. Now this is more on the audience than anything because, in my humble opinion, respect for the art over the entertainment of filmmaking has become lost on the general public. However it’s an unavoidably important aspect of a good story that it keeps your attention and while I commend Alfonzo Cuaron for creating and uncompromising piece of art I have to concede that “Roma” is the more interesting story when compared to “Cold War” but not the more entertaining of the two.
“Cold War” is much more fun to watch and more engaging in my opinion. The idea of a love story in general is an easy selling point for any film, but one like this that’s filled with real ups and downs and a bit of tragedy seems to be and effective crowd pleasing formula nowadays. “Cold War” gives its own spin to the idea though and thus results in a tragic romantic drama that presents its characters flaws perfectly and never promises or teases a happy ending. You have to stick through the whole ride to find out how it ends and even then it’s a journey that feels worthy of repeat viewings whereas with “Roma” you get pretty much everything you need from a single run-through. However, it’s hard to overlook that “Cold War” leans heavily on the same old song and dance as past films just with a fresh, albeit beautiful, coat of paint and a bit more inspiration than these tales tend to be blessed with. So, no it’s not as significant or artistic or unique as “Roma” but “Cold War” is the more fun story of the two and takes what should be a tired concept and makes it feel brand new all over again.
In the end this was the toughest category for me to pick. Does a story’s value lie in how gripping it is for the audience or how important it is to the world? It seems like a no brainer but it’s not. In the end though a movie’s purpose is to resonate beyond its years and I feel like “Roma” succeeds where “Cold War” never reaches the heights of being a possible “timeless” classic anytime soon. With that this round, and the battle, goes to “Roma”.
SCORE: “Roma” – 3 “Cold War” – 2
While I have to say both “Roma” and ‘Cold War” are amazing movies worthy of experiencing, there is a reason “Roma” won it’s Oscars and it’s not just campaigning. Whole “Cold War” shined in the acting department and did a much better job at world building and working its time period into the story, “Roma” did, in fact, contain better direction, cinematography and a story that may not entertain as much as “Cold War” but feels more significant and feels more capable of becoming a classic. “Cold War” is a fantastic picture that certainly earned it’s Oscar nominations and maybe even should have earned a few more, but when comparing the two I think the Academy and the critics got it right. “Roma” is the superior foreign film even if by an extremely slim margin.