Gone, Not Forgotten – Roma (2018)

Since the Academy expanded its threshold for Best Picture nominees to 10, there hasn’t been a year where they have nominated less than eight films (including eight this year). This has opened the door for many films that otherwise would have been completely off the public radar. Despite the continuing decline in the nomination criteria, “Oscar-nominee” still means quite a lot and remains the highest industry honor beside “Oscar-winner”, in terms of public perception. Providing that platform for more films and filmmakers is most certainly a positive thing but handing out those nominations still needs to be based on merit. Roma is undoubtedly an interesting cinematic experience but lacks the benchmarks that would elevate it to a Best Picture contender, let alone a favorite.

At this point, it’s fairly obvious that the Academy and every other awards show committee have a serious professional crush on Alfonso Cuarón. Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and Children of Men (2006) showcased both his skill and potential while garnering plenty of critical and casual acclaim, the latter of which still holds up as one my favorite films. Naturally, I had very high expectations for Gravity (2013) but it didn’t have the strengths of those other works. If you forgive the fact everyone would have died in the debris field traveling 17,000-mph within the first 5 minutes of the film, or can accept the paper-thin reason for Sandra Bullock’s character even being out there in the first place…sure…there’s some entertainment value to be had. That withstanding, Gravity was one of the most disappointing movie-going experiences in recent memory. Somehow, it still managed to reap all the rewards at the end of the year, with seven Academy Awards including Cuarón Best Director win and a Best Picture nomination as icing on the cake. There is no doubt he’s an immensely talented filmmaker but, technical proficiency notwithstanding, elevating that particular film into the Best Picture conversation set a bad precedent.

Fast forward five years and here we are again. If you were sifting through the seemingly endless options on Netflix and managed to stumble across the Mexican director’s latest work, you may have confused it with a student film. It would be difficult to watch Roma without context and feel as though you’d just seen a film from the year’s best director. What you didn’t see were Cuarón’s unique vision and approach. He wrote the movie as a semi-autobiographical tale derived from his own memories and the choice to shoot the film in black-and-white was reflective of a dreamlike, surreal state. Nobody else had the script either. He would dish a little to the cast here and there to set up scenes which gave him the organic feel he was looking for but (by his own admission) was also very slow, “sometimes it’s just boring and nothing happens”. He also took on cinematography duties for the first time on a feature film and it left much to be desired. The very first scene is a five-minute shot of a tiled driveway getting washed…and it’s a close-up. Eventually, the thematic imagery of the plane flying across the sky is presented but you know right then that you’re in for a long one. There are a couple of instances where the slow pan was integrated really well and creatively but most of the time it was a crutch used for unremarkable establishing shots. It certainly is not the year’s best cinematography but that award won’t even be televised anyway. In the editing room along with Adam Gough, Cuarón didn’t want to part with much of his B-roll and it resulted in a poorly paced two-hour and fifteen-minute runtime that works like Tylenol PM. It does get better as it goes along and finished with a much stronger second half but, for all its authenticity, it never felt engaging. There was some very interesting subtext regarding what was happening in Mexico at the time but that is not the focus of this story and isn’t brought into context particularly well. 

Among the many bizarre accolades being heaped upon this film, Yalitza Aparicio is being considered for Best Actress in a Leading Role as Cleo. While her portrayal is probably very accurate and representative of much more than this role alone, that only goes so far. Sympathetic and complex, sure, but her mostly expressionless approach didn’t make for a captivating character study. If she had some bond with the children it would have gone a long way but that’s not really present either and Cleo comes across as much more of a servant than an extended family member. It’s her first role and it’s painfully obvious at times. She wasn’t bad outright but Best Actress…nope. If anyone in the cast should be recognized it’s Marina de Tavira as Sofia. She gave a very unhinged portrayal of a woman betrayed by her husband and overwhelmed by the sheer child-to-parent ratio left in the wake of his departure. She is constantly battling insecurity and personal responsibility, leaving massive holes in the maternal foundation. Of these two, Tavira clearly brought more to the table although neither of the performances was among the best I’d seen in 2018.

It’s important for films like this to exist and to get recognition when deserved but making the Oscar equivalent to a participation trophy does a disservice to the film, the Academy and the audience. While Roma is surely original and clearly a very personal project for Cuarón, those things alone don’t make it a great film. It’s not a terrible movie or even a bad one, for that matter, but the hype far exceeded the product. Somehow, some way, this movie was nominated for 10 Oscars. If I’m being generous, and I don’t know why I’d be inclined to be generous, maybe half of those are warranted but noms for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing are complete throwaways that just look good on paper. The film isn’t short on heart but you have to wade through a lot to reach that payoff. 

Recommendation: Even if you’re a diehard Cuarón fan, this was dissimilar to his other work. Fortunately, you can watch this one from your couch as long as you have Netflix or are sharing someone else’s. Just be careful the couch isn’t too comfy because you may find yourself nodding off.

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