ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)
A loose, haphazard, listless collection of snapshots scattered on a floor, ROMA slowly gathers them together and pins them to a cork board labeled Slice of Life. As each ambling moment is shakily linked to the next, the overall story steadily builds up some steam, and things cohere fairly nicely down the stretch — but coherence does not equal emotional force, and you may end up a little unmoved by the results.
Plenty of sequences stand out on their own — the most memorable being the hospital delivery room and the beach rescue — but others come across like forced poetry: Cuarón imagining the lyrical power an image may have and thrusting it upon the audience without any dynamic storytelling leading you there. Here’s a shot of a baby in ICU with earthquake debris perilously atop its enclosure. Here’s a political uprising causing a riot outside a furniture store where two characters are shopping for a crib. He’s a master filmmaker with an uncommon gift for being able to tell a story without dialogue, so there’s plenty of great wordless exposition and character development (Fermín going back to drink the last of Cleo’s Coke, but not take the money she left on the counter; the ordeal of parking the Galaxy in its narrow driveway, etc.). But there’s also the sense that there are a lot of ideas here for a patchwork quilt of a movie that doesn’t have the focus of something like A LITTLE PRINCESS or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN.
Aside from his one hired-gun franchise movie (he did Harry Potter 3 or something), this is the first Cuarón feature not to employ the DP work of Emmanuel Lubezki. Perhaps that’s why the camerawork here — while gorgeous at times — leans a little too much on the crutch of the oscillating fan technique, covering most scenes in one shot and slowly panning back and forth to pick up action. But it’s going to be hard for any movie to top the dolly across the sand with the sun backlighting Cleo, or the opening shot of a tile floor splashed with soapy water, revealing a reflection of the sky above (note how often he uses reflection: dirty water, a waxed tabletop, you name it he’ll find a surface that can reflect a world outside the reach of its heroine). And in Cleo (and huge credit to rookie Yalitza Aparicio for a warm, understated performance of wisdom and tenderness), Cuarón has presented us a character through which to view a world that is harsh, indifferent, dangerous, and vast, but can somehow find a way to reflect back to us the model of giving, guileless, motherly affection.