We finally watched Roma last night and I was surprised and relieved to find I didn't hate it.
I don't think it's the greatest film released in 2018 by a long shot. At least three other films take that prize for me, notably Paul Schrader's First Reformed, (click on the link for David's review) Zvyagintsev's Loveless, which can bear some comparison with Cuaron's film for dialectically opposite strategies and subject matter, and - of all people - the Coens’ superb six part homage to How the West was Won, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. There are more in my top ten list including Cuaron's, but I have missed too much else to make any more of that.
The Cuaron has been most notably dissected and done over for frying in Richard Brody's New Yorker piece from this week's edition. As Brody's writing goes I'm rarely in tune, except in some cases with him on Godard. In this case he seems to be attacking Cuaron for not making the film he wanted to see, presumably a personal memoir constructed within a political discourse and a full scale character and contextual development of Yaritza Alparicio's bougeois family maid, Cleo (below).
I find these vanity exercises in criticism (and I have done a few of my own) pointless and unfair in the failure of duty they owe to what the movie does in fact achieve.
Where Brody laments the highly rehearsed, staged and directed long travelling shots, and the sheer pictorialism of the sequences, I celebrate them for their formal consistency. What Cuaron adds to this formal approach is, whether you like it or even think it's successful, the brightly lit and exposed high end, high rez (6.5K) digital photography which doesn’t lend the image much latitude for close ups. Indeed, there are very few of these, the principle one on Cleo's face in the hospital ward for the duration of her ordeal there.
The photography in fact encourages a defocusing from the personal to the 'Scope group spectacle which the Arri Alexa cameras capture with startling, even forensic, and grain free resonance. The only sequence in which he plays meaningfully with darkness alternating with light is in a single frontal group wide shot of the family, with Cleo watching a TV comedy, in which Plato's' philosophers' cave is referenced with the reflected binary of light and shade from the television screen. Tellingly the predominant sound on the track is the family's laughter. The moment is pure and distilled.
In fact, the digital photography is probably to me the single issue that sometimes detracts from a complete and more or less unreserved response. I understand his tactic, and I think it relates to what he is actually giving us, an entirely Proustian reverie in which the sheer persistence of highlighted memory itself, ever so jointly unreliable, but also prescient is formally underlined by the almost hyperreal quality of the photography. Sometimes this works superbly, sometimes less so.
It probably says as much as I otherwise need to say to simply recount that the second half of the picture intensifies the narrative pulse and strategy by setting up three gut wrenching sequences in a row before the coda. Here Cuaron's formal tactics pay off in spades and he achieves, with magnificent simplicity exactly what he had wanted to do, which is to move us, deeply and profoundly, with the heart of these three sequences. Politics, society, even characterization and class are totally outside consideration here, for all the resonances that inevitably bounce off the centrality of the maid, Cleo to the material. But the sequences all achieve in their own right reality, and absolute value in the cumulative impact. And the film ends. Forcefully and totally rooted in the remembered past. As present.
Cuaron has not needed or wanted to make a grand metaphysical statement, or some quasi-60s Left revival commentary on corrupt 70s Mexican politics and the immersion of the CIA in the whole dirty regime. He is starting with the Proustian madeleine, in this piece the boiled eggs, which Cleo sublimely and effortlessly taps and spreads into the children's plates. Everything else is subordinate to the sheer overwhelming power of memory, and pleasure.
Roma is not necessarily the greatest work of this year or any other year but it doesn't need to be. It attempts to express a formal presentation of an artist’s memory of a year in his childhood, a time when everything changed. This is something much more modest and in the end far more satisfying than the big gestural pictures. And he moves us, very deeply.
I cannot ask any more from the movies than that. In a year of heartlessly if expertly made, hollow dreck this film towers above most of it.