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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite