“Lawrence of Arabia”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” are amongst the most famous examples of epics. Even if you have not seen them, you have certainly heard of them. The genre holds a special and elusive position in the cinema. The record for the most Academy Awards won by a film stands at eleven and is shared by three films: “Ben-Hur”, “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”. All three are considered epics. Epics also have a reputation for reigning at the box office. Once adjusted for inflation, the four highest grossing films are all epics: “Gone with the Wind”, “Avatar”, “Titanic” and “Star Wars”. When done right, members of the genre can hit the sweet spot of earning mighty profits and awards recognition.
“Cold War” is a decade-spanning romance between musicians Zula and Wiktor, with Europe serving as a prominent backdrop to their tumultuous relationship. “Roma” follows Cleo, an indigenous woman working as a maid for an upper-class family in 1970s Mexico City. There are number of similarities between Mexican film “Roma” and the Polish “Cold War”. Most obvious are their shared monochromacy as well as being set to important conflicts: this is self-explanatory for “Cold War”, whilst “Roma” takes place during the build-up to the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. Through their stories and stylistic presentations, and the work of directors Paweł Pawlikowski and Alfonso Cuarón (both serving as directors of photography on their respective films), the most interesting commonality between “Roma” and “Cold War” is that they are both unlikely, yet entirely deserving, additions to the genre of epic cinema.
Epic cinema is considered to be films with grand scale and spectacle, but any definitions of the genre are loose. Despite this, a certain type of film has come to dominate the genre in recent years. Simply searching “epic movies” online produces examples that paint an expected picture. The internet’s first thoughts include “Kingdom of Heaven”, “Gladiator”, “Titanic”, instalments of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Saving Private Ryan”. The first ten posters feature just two women: Rose from “Titanic” and Arwen from “The Fellowship of the Ring”. There are no people of colour and all feature white men. Posters for “Cold War” and “Roma” – displaying the romance between Zula and Wiktor, or Yalitza Aparicio (indigenous lead actress in “Roma”) – would be starkly out of place in such company.
The films themselves differ to those currently dominating the genre. On a stylistic note, “Cold War” has a squarish aspect ratio that many of the aforementioned epics would struggle to wield in order to display the full scale of their elaborate design. “Roma” and ‘Cold War” were made on comparatively tiny budgets ($15million and $5million, respectively, compared to $166million and $149million for “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Gladiator”) and neither take an entire day to watch. But it is important to take caution when using these internet results as our benchmark for epics because these is an obvious English-language bias and salience for the present – indicative of a wider problem, perhaps.
The main reason why “Cold War” and “Roma” don’t come to mind as epics is that, unlike the titular characters of “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia”, the protagonists of Pawlikowsi and Cuarón’s films do not play pivotal roles in the conflict that surrounds them. But Zula, Wiktor and Cleo are all significantly affected by them. The Polish couple make different choices in the earlier years of the conflict, which strains their relationship and also lands Wiktor in prison further down the line. The drama surrounding the Corpus Christi Massacre inflicts significant emotional and physical trauma on Cleo.
However, it is this central difference that makes “Roma” and “Cold War” special. These two films ought to be considered grounded epics as their leads are far more relatable. People alive today have lived and breathed similar stories. It is this unique intersection between being epic and relatable that has inspired such admiration for these films.
Deserving of being classed as epics is further facilitated by style. Pawlikowski pans across grand concert halls and large landscapes to show the scale of the conflict-ridden world his protagonists inhabit. This is achieved despite his tight aspect ratio and a short 88-minute running time. Cuarón uses sweeping shots and utilises the natural elements as if he was filming complicated battle sequences rather than a 25-year-old maid. And perhaps this is a bias of having only seeing these films in black and white, but it is hard to imagine that either would retain all of their majesty had they been produced in colour.
Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert suggested that neither production cost nor elaborate design made an epic, but rather “the size of the ideas and vision”. For anyone who has seen “Roma” and “Cold War”, they can certainly attest that these two films are short of neither.