A bucketful of soap suds splashes across a row of tiles, transforming a square of garage floor into a mirror awash with the reflection of an airplane hovering in the sky above. The long take goes on to reveal Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid whose job it is to rinse away the dog crap before its master and her employer, Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), returns home from work. If a film were to be judged solely on its opening shot, Roma would handily deserve to take home all of this year’s best picture honors.
Alfonso Cuarón’s (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) curtain-raising quest to eke poetry out of life’s most mundane corners consumes but three minutes of a 135-minute running time. It’s a brilliant setup for what’s to come, but the two hours that lie ahead find moments of schematized repetition that border on gimmickry and cause the mind to disengage and begin drifting almost as much as Cuaron’s camera. Round and round the interior scenes it goes, where the oscillating lens stops, nobody knows.
Every night when the doc squeezes the Ford Galaxy into the narrow parking garage, his family greets him like a soldier returning from battle. Purposely withholding the identity of the driver, Cuarón covers every inch of the auto, inside and out, right down to the cigarette ash that falls to the floor when the brakes finally grind to a halt. What exits is a grey little nothing of a man, fed up with his marriage and poised to take it on the lam with another woman. His wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is not alone in her misery. She soon learns that Cleo is carrying the child of a brute who wants nothing to do with her, and therein lies the rub. The black-and-white ‘Scope images have the makings of a fine coffee table book, but at 24 fps, very little about these characters and their soap opera existence is compelling to watch. Sure, there are flashes of nude samurai-play, an earthquake in a maternity ward, and a bedroom wall adorned with mounted heads of beloved pet pooches, but there’s not enough forcible human emotion to provide needed balance.
Cuarón not only wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical tale of middle class life in Mexico City at the dawn of the 70s, he also acted as the film’s producer, cinematographer, and co-editor. Cuarón shot a series of shorts in the early 80s, followed by a brief stint lensing episodic television. This marks his first time photographing a narrative feature. It’s also another sterling example of the conductor falling in love with his hands.
After watching The Favourite, I surmised that Agios Vasilis — aka “Greek Santa” — brought Yorgos Lanthimos a fisheye lens for Christmas. He wasn’t alone. Cuarón must have pulled up on the lap of a similar department store Kringle. Either that, or they both awoke Christmas morn to find Blu-rays of John Frankenheimer’s ode to the 9.7mm lens Seconds stuffed in their stockings. In both cases, overuse of the wide angle lens becomes oppressive, with the edge going to Cuarón, whose fluid, albeit monotonous circular pans at least strive for something more than mere camera confection.
Take the scene in the back row of a grand old thousand-seat movie palace. Set just as Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille is reaching its final fade, Cleo informs her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that she is “carrying life,” as a nurse later puts it. Unfazed, Fermin uses his bladder as an excuse to make an early exit, leaving her alone and distressed. Not for a second was I caught up in Cleo’s dilemma. What hooked me was the sense of nostalgia associated with the ancient practice of drawing the travelling-curtains together as the closing credits played over them.
Even though the scene takes place long before the climax, it’s best that I issue a SPOILER ALERT! Cleo and the family grandmother visit a local department story to pick out a crib for the baby. A steady military presence in the streets prefigures the spectacularly staged riot that breaks out on the street below. The one-two punch of coincidence that follows — Fermin’s participation in the violent insurrection is revealed, causing Cleo to moments later break her water — is the type of plotting one expects from a Telenovela, not a film garnering this much critical attention.
A question of cinema sticks in my mind, the asker of which I have long ago forgotten. People always bandy about the term “beautifully photographed,” but can a bad film truly be beautifully photographed? While Roma is far from bad, shouldn’t cinematography and direction go hand in hand? Always the first to rail against directors who rely on closeups for a crutch, I find myself equally underwhelmed by a film composed almost entirely of medium to long shots. Call it a case of hello fisheye lens, arrivederci Roma.