ROMA (2018)

How quickly you should be moving to watch Roma on Netflix

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the film Roma. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read on! And if you haven’t seen it, why not? It’s over on Netflix now!

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

In July of 2018, Alfonso Cuarón released the first teaser trailer to his long awaited Gravity follow up. It was a deceptively simple video. Rich, black and white cinematography captures nothing more than a floor, being flooded with soapy water by an unseen presence off screen. The title of the film, some laurels from its selection to some festivals, and Cuarón’s name were all else it contained. But that minute-long morsel disguises just how much that water would end up meaning to us by the time this movie finishes.

Some people say that Roma “doesn’t really have a plot” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Cleo, a young Mixtec maid working for a family in Mexico City in the 1970s, deals with an unexpected pregnancy from an absent father, while at the same time her boss deals with her own kind of loss, in the form of her husband walking out on them. Of course, there are plenty of side threads. But it shouldn’t matter. Sometimes, we can let a great plot cloud our idea of what is needed for a good movie. I think Infinity War got caught up with that; it had so many characters and plot points, it forgot to flesh any of them out or take care to shoot each one equally and it was clear a lot of things ended up on the cutting room floor. (I realize now this is the second post in a row in which I’ve criticized Infinity War. I promise it won’t happen again, I’m just still somewhat confused what happened in that movie leading up to the snap. Like, what was large Peter Dinklage’s purpose even? But I digress.)

Chaos reigns in Roma, with seismic events being shown with a calm, almost blasé, eye in its filmmaking

What Roma lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in world building and production design. The extreme attention to detail is absolutely mind boggling. They rebuilt Mexico City on a production lot. Those shots of Cleo and Adela running through the streets to get to the movie theater and meet with their boyfriends? That’s all a backlot, those are all extras, and every bit of that scene was built or bought from scratch to complete the aesthetic. Building the family home on a soundstage was not enough, nor was renting a home. No, they saved a home from demolition to rebuild it inside and out from Cuarón’s memory. Not even a parking lot next to an abandoned soccer stadium was enough to control his vision.

A criminally underseen featurette where Alfonso Cuarón and production designer Eugenio Caballero talk through the creating of the set pieces for the film.

Shot by Cuarón personally, the movie is a feat of cinematography. Shot in black and white, the movie is not nominated for best editing, probably because it’s not obvious editing. The movie is filled with long shots, that let you take in the whole scene without always revealing everything. Case in point: my favorite scenes of the movie.

A pregnant Cleo goes with Teresa, Sofía’s mother, and another servant to get a crib and other furniture for the baby. They park on the streets and walk, nonchalantly, through a student protest to get to the furniture store. Soon after, chaos reigns. Shots ring out on the street, and a terrified couple come in, seeking shelter. Counterprotesters come in, seeking to shoot the students. We’re so caught up, watching the brutal slayings of these terrorized students, that we barely even see the out of focus gun being pointed at Teresa and Cleo. It isn’t until Cuarón pans his camera that we see that the gunman is Fermín, the father of Cleo’s child.

This is enough to breaks Cleo’s water. At the hospital, we see concerned doctors crowd around Cleo, worried about something unnamed. They rush her into a surgery suite, frantically calling for pediatrics. In a stunning four minute and eleven second unbroken shot, we see Cleo give birth, watch doctors attempt to resuscitate the stillborn, and later see her visceral reaction as the doctor tells her that her baby girl was born dead, and then tear the lifeless infant from Cleo’s arms and wrap her in cloth. Only Cleo is in focus, in a scene that, if it didn’t give so much away, would be all that would be needed for Yalitza Aparicio’s Oscar reel. The doctors CPR attempts are out of focus, and the nurse catching the baby, sewing Cleo up, and informing her of what’s happening is unshown. But Cuarón knows that not everything being heard must be seen on screen. He is an adept enough filmmaker to know what to focus on.

The star of the movie, whose smile lights up a theater screen, your TV, your laptop screen, or even your phone screen if you so choose.

Cuarón clearly put so much thought into the movie. It’s obvious every shot, every event, the symbolic, repeated presence of water and chaos and the overwhelming ubiquity of women was meticulous. Most directors, even those of his caliber and experience, are never as sure and dedicated as Cuarón is here. And thank god for it. It imbues the movie with a sense of purpose that overcomes any deficit of plot. It gives it a timeless quality. This is not some shoddy production made in response to politics or a sense of a trend within the industry. This is a labor of love, and an ode to childhood and a time gone by that few can muster without falling into camp or debilitating nostalgia. And it’s a movie that no other mainstream, traditional studio is willing to make.

A crowing achievement for cinematography, indigenous representation, and the pros of the seemingly endless stream of money coming out of streaming services, Roma is a revelation. Like it or not, few, if any, traditional movie studios would be willing to spend this amount of money on a foreign film starring unknown and first time actors, forget about any of its other handicaps (namely it’s black and white cinematography and its centering of an indigenous woman, revolutionary for an industry which was booing Sacheen Littlefeather off the stage at the Oscars 46 years ago).

It’s possible that we’ll see harmful effects of the centering of money and talent on a few sites several years down the line. But for now, we need to know how remarkable it is that this can happen, that a foreign film can be so widely loved and even more widely seen. It has only happened once before, for a movie with a similar budget and which also received ten Oscar nominations. Roma probably never made anywhere near what it made (although Netflix won’t even release its box office numbers, its been deduced that Roma has probably made $3 million), but it doesn’t need to. It has no money to make back, no studio looking for profits or for an opportunity for a sequel. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made stars out of Ang Lee and Michelle Yeoh. Roma should have the opportunity to do the same, just in a more modern way.

A Brief Update

It has been a hot minute. Where to begin? 

Well, if you didn’t know, I work in politics. Well, worked. I was working on the Ned Lamont campaign, as well as other down ballot races in Connecticut. It was exhausting (I worked for 3 straight weeks without a day off). Ned won, Matt Lesser is now a state senator, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz won re-election by a mere 50 votes, and I got a chance to sleep. 

Did I do that? Of course not!

Instead, I IMMEDIATELY moved to New York City. I lived here at one point in time, but moved back home for work and other reasons.  But I once again live where I belong, and Brooklyn just got another bad bitch and now I have a Brooklyn library card (which is VERY exciting to  me). But I do not have internet yet and I haven’t fully moved in yet and it’s all been very chaotic. And throughout ALL of this I have been trying desperately to watch movies and to write. But I haven’t had a chance to do either. I saw A Star is Born at an 11am screening one Tuesday before work (not recommended. To see the movie before work, that is) and I’ve had a half written post on it in my drafts for WEEKS now that I never had a chance to finish. I have so many awards season films to catch up with that I haven’t had a chance to see. 

I had plans to do a horror movie series for Halloween. I want to do a whole series on the films of this year’s awards season. I want to do a Christmas movie or two. (I still haven’t seen A Nightmare Before Christmas!)

But instead, here’s my excuse post. 

My review of the previous versions of A Star is Born will be up within a day or two. Until then, enjoy this apology. 

The Experiment Begins

On December 28th, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers held the first paid screenings on ten short films. It was to be the first ever film showing in world history. 

In the early hours of February 14th, 1997, I was born in a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. 

A lot of shit happened between then. 

On December 28th, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers held the first paid screenings of ten short films. It was to be the first ever film showing in world history.

In the early hours of February 14th, 1997, I was born in a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

A lot of shit happened between then.

From the Lumiere Brothers, to DW Griffith, to Cecil B DeMille, to Hitchcock, to Wilder, to Fellini, to De Palma, to Scorsese and beyond, there’s a lot of cinema that I probably SHOULD see but I HAVEN’T seen. And there’s even more that I WANT to see but I haven’t gotten around to. I’m only 21, I’ve been deeply into cinema for only a couple years, and I’ve held a full time job for nearly 2 years now. Time allotted for watching movies isn’t getting any larger, so I just need to do it.

At the same time, I’ve been dreaming about directing/writing for several years now. I don’t have the money for film school (I don’t even have the money to finish up my half-baked bachelor’s in politics) so I’ve decided to teach myself the ins and outs of what makes, in my view, good movies. What links all of my favorite films together? What elements do they all have that endears me to them so much? And how can I know THAT without watching some of the greats? And what better way to learn about movies than writing, for the permanent record for the world to see, about which classics I loved and which ones I didn’t?

This will be a blog as I try and watch as much revered and roundly praised movies that I wasn’t alive to see in the 102 years since that Lumiere Brothers screening. This will be my “film catch up” on all the shit that older film aficionados bragged about watching in theaters in 1993 or have stories about renting from Blockbuster at age 17. I can’t watch every movie in theater and Blockbuster is no longer around for my film awakening (RIP). But I can try my best to make sure I’m as well educated about the movies as I should be.

So come along on this journey as I share my thoughts on all the classics I’ve missed. I hope you have as good of a time as me.

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