Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 06, 2018 3:01 pm 
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Grandeur and helplessness in a portrait of Seventies Mexico City

ROMA won the top prize at Venice this year, the Golden Lion. This black-and-white film is an autobiographical memoir, intimate yet detached, of a bourgeois 1970's Mexico City family and their two maids, and some notable public events. Some are calling it a "masterpiece" yet Cannes didn't get it due to their feud with Netflix. This helps explain that it debuted and got the big prize at Venice; but Venice, not Cannes has always been home for Cuarón. It's Cuarón's first film since the 2001, also Venice-awarded, Y Tu Mamá También to be set in his native Mexico and maybe his best since that one. He wrote it, shot it, and edited it besides directing it. The result is brilliant and quietly shattering.

Roma's title refers to the posh middle class neighborhood of Mexico City where the film is set and Cuarón himself grew up. The sociological and archeological focus of the film is indicated by the fact that Cuarón built elaborate indoor sets of whole streets of Mexico City and whole avenues to recreate what the city and that neighborhood were like in 1970-71, the time of the story. The detail of these slow-pan portraits and the grandeur of the big sequences make it especially ironic that this film was sold to Netflix. Happily I was able to watch it on a very large screen, in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in the middle of the orchestra - a setting like the big old Mexico City movie palaces featured in the film itself where at one point the kids see an astronaut movie.

Cuarón himself proves a more restrained, less intimate cinematographer than his usual dp Emmanuel Lubezki, who likes to swirl around his subjects, a technique that came into its own five years ago in the director's last film, his own technically masterful astronaut movie, Gravity, whose seven Oscars let the filmmaker pick and choose his next project. Cuarón prefers medium shots, avoiding closeups at times when you might expect them, using slow lateral pans as serene transitions between scenes. The neutrality of the soft black and white also serves to distance us while nonetheless dazzling us with the clarity of its 65mm images.

Roma is more structured by big moments of unexpected drama than by a storyline. Big things happen, but there is no connected chain of events. This fits with a sense of helplessness brought about by placing women at the center. The two important men do their damage in absentia. The doctor husband goes on a fake trip to Canada and never comes home, removing his property and shelves full of books from the big messy house later unseen while the rest of the family is on an imposed "vacation" trip to the seaside at Tuxpan. The man of humble origin who gets the maid Cleo pregnant, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), is an exhibitionist who explains to her that he has risen from the barrios by mastering martial arts. Later it appears he has joined a sinister right wing militia. He turns up three times and each time it is vivid and unnerving.

If one feels neutral and also helpless while watching, this most fittingly expresses the nature of the film's single most important character, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the main family servant along with Adela (Nancy Garcia), both of whom are of indigenous and rural origin and talk to each other in a Mixtecan language. For the four children (whom one never gets to know) Cleo is family, their essential comfort, who puts the youngest (who does have some cute lines of dialogue) to bed at night exchanging heartfelt "I love you's." The movie is dedicated to Cuarón's own family maid, who is still around and who he said wept all through when she saw it.

Roma is rich in intimate scenes particularly between Cleo and the children. There is also the cruel intimacy and horror of the hospital where Cleo gives birth to a dead child, an event never so vividly and pitilessly seen on screen. Or the cute scene where the smallest boy lies back on the roof saying he's dead, and Cleo lies with him, her head touching his, saying she's dead too. There is the mundane or silly intimacy of Cleo sloshing water all over the tiles to clear away dog do in the opening credits, or of the household's wife and mother, Sra. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and her terrible driving - though one can sympathize with her inability to steer the big Seventies American car into the too-narrow house carport.

But there are also the big grand scenes that fit with the grandeur of the production. The family visits a vast country house where hunting prevails and incredibly, the heads of generations of family dogs are mounted on the wall. A big fire outside is put out by campesinos. Student demonstrators riot in the street, then some take refuge in a furniture store and are pursued by right wing thugs with pistols shooting to kill. The mother and children go to Tuxpan where two of the children almost drown off the Playa and Cleo, though she can't swim, saves them. It's not Cleo and the children who dominate the screen in this climactic sequence but the huge roaring waves. In a hospital, there is an earthquake - though this sequence mixes the grand and the intimate, because it focuses on Cleo looking at the newborn babies. Typically for her, she stands mute, unable to do anything. There's a paradox about the maid's status. She is both indispensable and powerless. Cleo survives because Sra. Sofía stands by her. Sra. Sofía survives, and she and the children and servants and grandma Sra. Teresa (Verónica García) stay on in the house, because the social system and the economics of the time protect them, though Sra. Sofía has to go to work.

Any class system like this has inherent contradictions and so the film gives out mixed signals, in a way. It is both a critique of the world of male domination and inexorable class differences and nostalgic for aspects of life lived there. This mixture explains why Owen Gleiberman's Variety review describes Roma as "shimmering yet remote" and says Cuarón "puts us in close quarters with his characters" while "staring at them from a beatific and nearly abstract remove." This is my own impression. Roma is nostalgic and poetic at times but we don't get to know the characters all that well, and those qualities are brought to ground by the elaborate production, detached visual style, and documentary-like "neorealist" clarity. While greatly admiring the skill and sweep of this film I couldn't help feeling a more humanistic version of events would have emerged from much simpler means, the kind of means that sufficed for Y Tu Mamá También.

Roma, 135 mins., debuted at Venice and won the Leone d'Oro and SIGNIS Award, and showed in over a dozen other major international film festivals including Telluride, Toronto, Busan, Mill Valley, London, and the New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review (6 Oct. 2018). Cuarón having been called away, Benicio del Toro gave a rousing introduction to the film, declaring it to be not only Cuarón's best but number five of his own five favorite films. US release date: 14 Dec. 2018. Metascore: 95.



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