Here we follow young Zula and the slightly older Wiktor, musicians from disparate classes in post-war Poland brought together by a government-run academy dedicated to the preservation of Polish folk music. This was an actual thing founded in war-torn Poland in 1948—the Mazowsze, which exists to this day.
Zula's a bit of a con artist, or so we glean—but as Wiktor says almost immediately, she has "something," a certain darkness, but also burning passion and talent among the wreckage of her past. Newcomer Joanna Kulig as the tortured young singer brings a natural and effortless grace and style, even in her more human or pitiful moments, while Tomasz Kot's portrayal of the lovesick but prideful Wiktor is so painfully relatable, we wind up empathizing a little too deeply with him. Both perspectives make absolute sense, however, even in their less courteous actions. We root for each character equally, a rare but fantastic feat from a powerhouse like Pawlikowski that feels like a more modern-day Dr. Zhivago … a sexier one, anyway.
The pair discovers an immovable love blossoming between them, one that crosses borders and time, withstanding detour lovers, marriages of convenience and deportations; the music they make together throughout the 1950s and '60s is even more beautiful. Pawlikowski captures it all in crisp black and white with a stunning attention to detail and scenic composition. From the countryside of Poland to the streets of Paris, from a Russian stage to bombed-out churches, everything is romance in all of its charred, beautiful, terrible power. The heart-wrenching soundtrack culled from real-life traditional Polish folk songs, which are then reinterpreted to mirror the times represented in the film, is nothing short of phenomenal.
There is a danger to love like this, the kind in which we lose ourselves. And yet we can't help but focus so intently on the principal characters, even at their worst and despite the numerous others that surround them. Like them, we throw caution to the wind and hope beyond hope that it all works out—but these things seldom do, right? It all boils down to chemistry: the kind that burns between Kulig and Kot, the kind that cannot be faked onscreen or otherwise, and the stuff that goes down as cinematic legend. Don't miss this gorgeous film.
+Incredible performances; the music; the feeling
-Moments of fleeting tedium
Directed by Pawlikowski
With Kulig and Kot
Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown, R, 89 min.