Skip to main content

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.


Cuarón doubtless feels his indulgence is justified by the decision not to focus directly on his own fictionalised family, and instead, nominally, follow their maid/nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio); it's an assuagement of his upper middle-class guilt and as a paean not at all patronising in tone, you see, like a Mexican Mike Leigh. Cuarón can pat himself on the back for his insight and empathy and feel good about the second-class citizen in the house. Except, if that's his motivation, why does he remain so coolly distant from her trials and tribulations? Would getting too close break with the lustrously stylised veneer burnishing every frame? It would certainly get in the way of his ulterior motive: magpie-like recreations of social, political and pop cultural events that informed his formative years.


Which isn't to say Cuarón’s film doesn’t boast many incidental pleasures and observations, but you need to be dedicated to its languorous, listless unfolding, enshrined amid a milieu of banal domesticity, to get the most from them. Cleary, most critics consider profundity lies in these smaller details, with Cleo there, Forrest Gump-like, to impassively witness them; there's the youngest son, given to explaining his past lives to her ("When I was old, before I was born, I as a pilot"; then later, "When I was older, I used to be a sailor. But I drowned in a storm…" - he certainly had a remarkably vibrant, wish-fulfilment prior existences); the family car, favoured by the absent husband and too big for its parking garage, is subjected to brutal mistreatment when Sofia (Marina de Tavira) drives home pissed one night; Sofia takes everyone to spend New Year with a friend's family, the hacienda is stuffed with taxidermy, including of the family pets; an earthquake hits a hospital, Cuarón pausing on a scene of rubble atop of an incubator.


There's also a touch of the Fellini-esque tableau during a forest fire; each element is so composed, I was half expecting a dwarf to romp by. There's thus a pervasive feeling that Roma is luxuriating in its own self-awareness of its transcendent artfulness and essential worthiness. With the bonus that this is the artist's appreciation of honest working-class simplicity. Despite the time afforded her, Cleo's essentially a noble cypher; because she is passive, meek, knows her place, has no agency, is dutiful and diligent and devoted to her employer and her family, she is essentially worthy and deserving of praise. She's accepted as a member of the family, sort of, for as long as she is anonymously compliant. During the vacation, on which she's explicitly invited not as servant, it’s clear that she remains essentially that; there's always rank and hierarchy. Sofia will tell her "We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone" (sage words from a male writer), but this isn't because she feels any genuine connection with her (at least, if she's supposed to, this isn't evident). 


Necessarily for an inexpressive stoic, Cleo must undergo various ordeals, coming through them beaten but unbowed. She gets pregnant by a terrible asshole who calls her a "fucking servant" when she shows up at his training school (the scene itself a sign of the kind of indiscriminate excess a Netflix budget can get you). Taken to the store by grandma for a crib, this is revealed as an excuse for Cuarón to depict rioting student protestors with guns enter and take over (including a repeat appearance by the asshole boyfriend to further evidence what an asshole he is). 


One might argue that the unrest we're seeing highlights the obliviousness of Cleo and her well-off employers, but for me it underlies that Cuarón's only interested in her life in as far as it joins the dots with what he really wants to portray. He's so taken with the glorious vistas of recreated beauty and hardship and struggle of 1970s life in Mexico City, he forgets to say anything meaningful about life itself. As such, the salutary saving of the kids from drowning that forms the emotional – and actual – climax of the movie ("We love you so much, Cleo" the grateful Sofia tells her, as Cleo confesses she didn't want the baby she lost) lacks any real punch. It's far too rigorously composed for that (so much so, it can be used for the film poster).


So, ducking and running from the cries of "Philistine!", I have to label Roma as only okay. I can certainly see its worthiness in a technical sense, but as a character study, or a time capsule, or a socio-political snapshot of the period, it falls short for me. It skims the surface of its subject matter, superficially and seductively, but that's all it does (it's telling that neither trailer featured dialogue, the most recent one even going as far as being set to Pink Floyd's The Great Gig in the Sky). Oscars ahoy, then. Right?



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.