ROMA - An elegiac cinematic poem

ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

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ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

As I write this, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has been acclaimed to a remarkable level with 10 Oscar nominations, and another 140-plus citations from critics’ circles and awards organizations world-wide.

By the time you read this, Roma will have churned through its awards season. At centre stage are the Oscars on February 24th. Roma is expected to compete with the other film tied for the nominations lead: Greek-born Yorgos Lanthimos’ wildly operatic The Favourite – an 18th century British history lesson.

No two films among Oscar’s eight best picture nominees could be more dissimilar. Their stories are radically polarized. The Favourite rips into the rich tapestry of the inept reign of Queen Anne, circa 1702 to 1714. Roma weaves a quotidian tale of a middle-class family, focusing on the clan’s indigenous nanny, in Mexico City, circa 1971.

The contrast between the two films is true for tone, mood, pace, attitude, impact, subtext, raison d’etre, socio-political acumen, stark images, and the way each director handles emotional highs/lows. Yet, both are great films.

For me, though, Roma is the stunning and timeless masterpiece, while The Favourite is a bawdy entertainment that might soon be forgotten.

Cuarón is already a double Oscar-winner for directing and editing his space drama Gravity (2013). Hurrah, but what happens (or has happened) to Roma at this year’s Academy Awards will not change its place in cinematic history as an elegiac cinematic poem. Roma is already an outlier. First, because it was produced by, and shown on, Netflix, instead of by a Hollywood studio and screened in theatres. Second, because Cuarón photographed it in lambent black-and-white, instead of lurid colour. Third, because his Spanish-language story is an intimate journey through personal memory, not a familiar English-language drama with a constructed plot.

Cuarón dedicates Roma to Lido, his own nanny of indigenous heritage. Lido raised Alfonso and his siblings from infancy. He calls her, “a second mother to us all.”

Lido is “fictionalized” as Cleo in Roma, yet feels real and authentic. She is played in her acting debut by Oscar-nominated Mexican educator Yalitza Aparicio. Her naturalistic performance is as shattering as it is understated.

Cleo works alongside Adela (also played by an indigenous newcomer, Nancy Garcia Garcia). They serve a chaotic family headed by Senora Sofia (Oscar-nominated Marina de Tavira). The husband is a lost cause. The four kids are a crazy handful. Granny is doddering. Roma charts a year of personal upheavals in their collective lives. Daily events are vividly set against the maelstrom of Mexico City earthquakes, student protests, fascist uprisings, state-sanctioned murders, government corruption and brutal oppression of indigenous people.

Yet Roma is always lyrical at its heart, if unsentimental. Much more is communicated by image than dialogue. The film’s micro scale is sometimes joyous, sometimes heart-breaking, while Cuarón subtly transcends obvious class differences. Ultimately, beautifully, the tendrils of love stretch across the class divide. Roma is a life force.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.


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