I settled down with Roma ecstatic to welcome a fresh modern classic and when the credits finally, indignantly printed onto the screen all I was left with was a desperate, consuming desire to seek out The Wild Pear Tree in the hopes that it would fill the vacant hole Cuarón’s ‘Magnum Opus’ had left in me.
Roma plays like an “art-film” tutorial. I would call it insincere but writer/director Alfonso Cuarón seems too distant even for that, producing factory imitation that commits emotional suicide by activley trying to fit the definition of the "art" picture. To watch Roma is to immediately recognise that this is not the way Cuarón makes movies. It abandons his strengths and crucially his warm idiosyncracies for the sake of making something with a juvenile sense of 'maturity'. In the end, the only thing that could have more perfectly expressed its internal importance would be to add another hour. It’s a crying shame to consider the possible dramatic force driven between the frames. The way the city erupts, with the instantaneous chill of immediate violence that seems to rip you out of your body and force you to watch from above, is rich with detail. Cuarón will only detail these events as he may, or may not, have lived them and I think perhaps this blind devotion to mistaken ‘respect’ is what handicaps such scenes. The elegance of filmic reality is absent and replaced by crushing banality and irritating contrivance as every scene seems cherry-picked from self-affected artistry, as if the man has carefully concocted a brew of all of his favourite films and forgotten that to forge a fresco solely from other people’s [acclaimed] work is to shatter its soul. The result, is a husk.
It’s branded all over with the very worst kind of storytelling: A film on auto-pilot where subtext is a currency of self-worth hidden in plain sight, instead of abstracted by the ever-flowing internal logic of its own living world. What I mean is that critical character details are withheld and unmasked wearing self-congratulatory smugness, and the director’s bruised sense of storytelling relates to the active ‘artiness’ of Roma in the worst way possible- further alienating its tacky observation to a distant dimension of threads and arcs totally contrived to present an asymmetrical, ‘oblique’ experience that might demand repeat viewings if only to tediously map back into a sensible picture. It tears itself apart very gradually, until Cleo is a tenuous core that seems only to wash against other, stronger characters that solely serve to push her further down that comfortable old autopilot road. Every punch reveals itself a mile away and is pulled with tastelessly detached direction. The only real meat of Roma is glimpsed with almost mocking brevity in the vivid spontaneity of cinematic language finding poetry in the world’s natural spin- like Cleo getting knocked at a party and dropping her drink. It’s a grim omen in the instant it’s shown but Cuarón cuts away from his most effective images before they have time to expand their potential of feeling and force; and by the time he so forcibly reconnects it to a series of painfully pre-plotted dominoes the less and less I respect the original intent. Instead of allowing his images to settle within us, he dilutes them in re-contextualisation and convenience.
For me Cuarón’s flat direction failed utterly in propelling his prophesied disasters to powerful catharsis. In discarding the more immediately immersive photography of his earlier work he has forced himself to adapt to gnawing austerity and in the transition forgotten to colour it with his own character. To me people can revel in Roma all they like and I am forever encouraged by other people loving movies I was mixed on- but as it stands the film is a messy mosaic of styles without substance pulled from a kaleidoscopic range of ‘art’ cinema canon. It’s vapid direction betrays the insipid story- which seems to think it’ll pull a pass out of shooting life, and nothing more, so long as a few details reprise in a cute bow by curtain call. I watch Cleo and her family and find no substantial comment, neither emotionally or thematically, and yet no dramatic purity either. Even its most intimate moments alienate me because, well, perhaps we’ve seen them before- Endlessly- and if Roma’s idea was to connect the collective cinematic web of life to uncompromised poetic reality and show us, finally, that life and art are one and the same. But his endless, subtle imitations impose a pressure that collapses any grand design and exposes it as pitifully out of the film’s league.
Never did I think a technique as richly fundamental as the pan could be so hideously exhausted on such luxuriant settings (and a superlative Alexa camera). I can only believe that Cuarón in an effort to escape possible claims that he relies on the Steadicam as a crutch for his impact waived the now veteran cinematic weapon for this new Spartan design again terminally concerned with defining Roma as a film in relation to its own public image than immersing the eye of the camera as one with its world: Every time Cuarón pans, I sense the entire crew lurking a few inches shy of the scene. I believe that the majority of movies should survive in a vacuum and Roma appears to me distinctly designed to cater to an ‘art’ film context, as if to insult the intelligence, skill and sincerity that so wildly enrichened his best work. I will not assume the man has dismissed Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También as infantile, or clumsy- but I think Roma’s blind stab at more ‘mature’ filmmaking subconsciously devalues them in his eyes, when the rich personality and absolutely vivid energy of film-making so alive in those works was in mine murdered by the institutionalised clinicism of Roma- which for a personal tale of Mexican life seems desperate to snuggle in with the European crowd.
As if to spear itself on a perfect metaphor- Roma served us the man singing in the middle of the forest fire. For fans of further cinema this kind of distraction is normalcy: It excites many to see an unnamed, unknown figure transcend their situation and reach through the screen with absolute confidence. However Cuarón seems to write this because it happens in these movies, not because it is earned in his own. The singing scene is a poster-child for cinematic pretension that seems to happen for the sake of happening. There is no great calling and more importantly there is no void of reason that allows us to surrender to feeling. An actor is told to sing, and executes this order. And you know what? Roma is better than this infantile, manipulative image. It doesn’t deserve to martyr its desire on this awful moment, but it bull-headedly marches on anyway... and it becomes painfully clear that Roma’s substitute for a soul is the suspiciously omnipresent nature of the moniker “personal story” in every synopsis.
The more immersed in active film-making I have become, the more each famed director’s most recent disappointment has been coloured with empathy, instead of resentment. I wondered why Gaspar Noé’s Climax seemed to expose a man ever-excited in making movies and yet perhaps exhausted of his best ideas and on the flipside I marvelled quietly at how for all its most distant devices You Were Never Really Here was just the most beautifully perfect movie for Lynne Ramsay to make, right now in her career. With Roma, I see Alfonso Cuarón tragically prostituting his passion for an artistic legitimacy he has already long achieved. I see a man not just trying to make a movie but a ‘Magnum Opus’ to be remembered for ticking every box movies like this do- and devolving their organic power into didactic tedium in the process. Ultimately it worries me that the man has wasted such a personal place and time on such a feeble, restless picture as if to prove something to himself when in reality a scattering of modern cinematic treasures already rest in his hands- both of which sadly seem to have been tied behind his back the entire time.