Sunday, February 10, 2019

Why Roma Should Win Best Picture

If you follow my writing, you know that I only write about a film when I feel strongly compelled to do so — and that doesn't happen very often. In July 2014, I wrote about Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a deeply moving coming of age story and a wildly ambitious 12-year-long act of filmmaking that eschewed special effects make-up in favor of filming the same actors as they aged in real life. And in October 2016 I gave accolades to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, before it was nominated for any awards, calling it "the most human film of the year," "a contemplative masterpiece of filmmaking, and a profound and subtle meditation on the fragile construction of masculinity." Moonlight went on to win Best Picture in the 89th annual Academy Awards.

In December 2018 I was in New York City, and Alfonso Cuarón's Roma was playing in two theaters. I knew little about the film except that it was made by the director of Gravity, and that it was about his childhood in Mexico City and was mostly about his nanny. What I knew most of all was, "YOU HAVE TO GO SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN!" I was told this several times by a friend who had a slightly wild look in her eyes when she said it, impressing upon me the urgency of making every possible effort to see it in the theater. And so, on our last night in New York City, I cajoled my husband into venturing out in the bitter cold to see Roma at the Independent Film Center in Greenwich Village. We left the theater feeling stunned by what we had just experienced, full of joy and sadness and awe. We walked through the quiet streets of downtown New York on a cold week night, talking for an hour and a half about the impressions the film had left upon us.

Last night I experienced Roma on the big screen for the second time, at Coral Gables Art Cinema in my hometown of Miami. I say "experienced" because 'watched' or 'saw' would be a poor way to describe what has transpired for me both times I've experienced Roma.

I have never felt more viscerally immersed into any film, as if I were physically pulled into the world depicted on the screen, transported through space and time to 1970s Mexico City. I became an invisible observer within the film itself, seeing every visual detail, hearing every sound near and far, I felt as if I could almost smell the scents in the air and feel the textures on my skin that were felt by the characters in the film.

I cannot imagine that this immersive, multi-sensorial experience happens for the majority of people who see Roma at home on Netflix. Last night's screening was in 70mm printed film format, with eight reels of film that were mounted and played in sequence by the theater's projectionist. Even the screening itself seemed to take me back in time, to an era in my own childhood when cinema was an analog experience, not a digital file download that could be projected by a computer at the touch of a button.

Among Roma's many technical achievements, one of the most astonishing is that there is no musical soundtrack, no composed score to manipulate your emotions by heightening the narrative or foreshadowing events. Paradoxically, the absence of a score makes sound one of the film's most viscerally gripping aspects. The sounds you hear in Roma are the real sounds of life in Mexico City in the 1970s: children playing games and fighting with each other, dogs barking, birds singing, street vendors selling their wares, soldiers marching, students protesting, dishes clattering, car engines idling and horns honking, radios playing, jets flying overhead, the whistling call of the knife sharpener walking through the streets, passersby chattering in Spanish or in one of Mexico's 68 indigenous languages.

Roma intertwines emotional storytelling and social commentary on a vastly ambitious scale. The narrative centers on Cleo, a sweet-tempered if somewhat naive young indigenous woman from a rural village who now works as a maid and nanny for an upper-middle-class white family in the 'Roma' neighborhood of Mexico City. The family's troubled dramas unfold around her as Cleo undergoes her own troubles, having become pregnant by a man who leaves her. Circles within circles within circles, Cleo's story unfolds within the family drama that unfolds in the household in which she works, while outside the walls of the family's house, larger stories unfold about the troubles rocking Mexico City during that era — sometimes literally, as in the scene when an earthquake strikes while Cleo is peering through the glass at newborn babies in the maternity ward. The fragility of life, always at the mercy of the violence wrought by nature and by mankind, is one of the film's persistent, aching themes.

Critic Richard Morgan, writing in The Washington Post, attacked Cuarón as being heavy-handed with his own directorial voice and creating a world of shallow female characters who are not allowed to express their own opinions. "While it’s visually stunning, it’s emotionally stunted, with a script that allots very little space for her — or any of the characters — to express an opinion." Morgan stopped just short of calling Cuarón a mysoginist, but only just.

I can't help but wonder if Morgan and I watched different movies, because Roma is a profoundly feminist film. Men and boys pass in and out of the story, generally leaving in their wake a trail of personal chaos, violence, and destruction wherever they go. But the film itself is more concerned with the struggles and triumphs of its female protagonists. The voices of these women are muffled by social customs and the overbearing machismo of the society in which they live, but make no mistake: women are shown here as the real creators of life, the ones who lovingly (and sometimes through their own heartbreak and tears) nurture life and hold it together while the men around them seem hell-bent on doing their best to screw it up and tear it all apart.

There is a moral arc to the stories in Roma. From the start, the women in the film are beholden to the men in their lives, sycophantically dependent on them for approval and support. The men in their lives — a pack of buffoons, liars, cowards and assholes, one and all — keep betraying them, molesting them, impregnating them, lying to them, threatening them, and running away from them. But by the end of the film, the women who are central to the story have found some hard-won peace of mind through realizing their own strength and establishing their independence from these men.

Another critic, Richard Brody, in an utterly tiresome review in The New Yorker, attacked Cuarón for failing to turn Roma into an astute political discourse. One of the film's pivotal scenes unfolds on the day of the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 10, 1971, a terrifying day in Mexican history when longstanding tensions erupted between leftist student protesters and the U.S.-backed right-wing government and its CIA-trained paramilitaries. 120 people were killed, many of them hunted down by the paramilitaries and shot in their hiding places in stores and hospitals. We see this horror unfold through the eyes of Cleo and the family's grandmother, who have ventured out on the day of the protests to buy a crib for Cleo's soon-to-be-born baby. Brody harangues Cuarón for not providing viewers with enough of the political backstory to understand the subtleties of the United States' covert involvement in the massacre — but, to Brody's chagrin, Roma is a feature film, not a documentary. Cuarón's intent was not to provide a history lesson or expound upon the complexities of the political violence that unfolded on that day, but to place us right in the midst of the horror and let us experience it as people did in the moment — with complete bewilderment and fear — not as academics standing back and commenting upon the action and discussing the intersectionality of Mexican racial relations and economic disparities with geopolitical interference. When Cleo's water breaks and she has to be rushed to the hospital in the midst of this terror, it brings us rushing back to the innermost circle of the film's narratives, the one centered on Cleo's personal story. Brody seems disappointed that Cuarón didn't 'splain to us the meaning and political complexities of the violence and social chaos we witness — and on another day I'd be happy to watch the documentary that Brody seems to wish Cuarón had made — but Brody's misplaced expectations are wildly out of sync with the feature film Cuarón actually did make.

Roma is a breathtaking masterpiece of cinema, with an astonishing degree of attention to every visual and sonic detail, and a narrative that unfolds on multiple scales, both personal and epic. The film leaves an indelible impression on one's heart that lingers for weeks afterwards. It's also filled with small moments of magic, even mysticism, like the times when the youngest member of the family, Pepe (who seems to be a stand-in for Cuarón), recounts to Cleo memories of his previous lives, "when I was older." Cleo lovingly laughs off Pepe's stories as the fancies of a child's imagination, but this is the wisdom that can only be spoken by a child, by one who is innocent, one whose mind has not yet become complicated and fogged over by the brute ways of the world in which he is bound to grow up.

There are now two Alfonso Cuaróns: the one before Roma, and the one after. Before Roma, Cuarón had already established himself as a great, technical Hollywood filmmaker, taking Best Director for Gravity. That is also the Cuarón who made the sexy and scintillating Y Tu Mama Tambien, and the same one who brought us the apocalyptic, dystopian vision of our future in Children of Men, a film that now seems uncannily timeless and increasingly prescient with each passing year. But with Roma, Cuarón has quite simply transcended ordinary filmmaking, creating a bold and unapologetic work of art that will be remembered and reflected upon for decades to come. With one tremendous step forward, Cuarón has entered the hall of giants that is home to immortal filmmakers like Bergman and Fellini.

If Roma is playing on a big screen near you — in a darkened theater, in its full 21:9 aspect ratio, with surround sound — you must go see it. If it is not, you should perhaps consider getting on a plane and flying to a city where it is.