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

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.