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

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

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.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.