Card­board char­ac­ters re­duce im­pact of ‘Roma’

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - VOICES -

“Roma” is a lock to get an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Best Pic­ture.

It also will get nods for Best Di­rec­tor and Best Cin­e­matog­ra­phy and per­haps Best Screen­play, all of which were han­dled by di­rec­tor Al­fonso Cuaron.

In the black-and-white film, Cuaron has cre­ated a love let­ter to his child­hood in Mex­ico City in the early 1970s, craft­ing a pas­tiche of mun­dane and life-al­ter­ing sce­nar­ios for his char­ac­ters. The film has been hailed as a “mas­ter­piece,” “mas­ter­ful achieve­ment” and “a vivid and emo­tional por­trait of do­mes­tic strife and so­cial hi­er­ar­chy amidst po­lit­i­cal tur­moil.”

And I didn’t re­ally like it.

Oh, its glo­ri­ous black-and­white cin­e­matog­ra­phy is cer­tainly a mas­ter­piece, and the film as a whole is an ob­vi­ously sin­cere state­ment by Cuaron. It works well in its near-doc­u­men­tary goal of pre­sent­ing Mex­i­can cul­ture of the ’70s, its TV shows, the per­son­al­ity of its neigh­bor­hoods, the mid­dle-class life, so­ci­etal tra­di­tions, the gaps be­tween the poor and the os­ten­ta­tiously wealthy.

But in its at­tempt to por­tray larger so­ci­etal changes through the daily lives of or­di­nary peo­ple, its char­ac­ters be­come card­board, mere win­dow dress­ing. Per­haps that’s Cuaron’s in­tent, to paint on a larger can­vas with broad strokes in­stead of mi­cro­scopic de­tail.

That be­comes a prob­lem, how­ever, when your main char­ac­ter seems to be a ve­hi­cle rather than a real per­son. The film cen­ters on Cleo, a maid/nanny in a doc­tor’s mid­dle-class home. But she’s an au­tom­a­ton, a word that comes up in the movie. She di­rects noth­ing in her life, merely lets oth­ers dic­tate what she does, how her life un­folds. Ex­cept for one scene in which she con­fronts her former “boyfriend,” she never makes a de­ci­sion for her­self; oth­ers do that for her.

When your main char­ac­ter doesn’t seem to have any char­ac­ter, it’s dif­fi­cult to gen­er­ate any sym­pa­thy or em­pa­thy.

I had the same prob­lem with Cuaron’s last film, 2013’s “Grav­ity,” which earned him a Best Di­rec­tor Os­car. While the film had tons of whiz-bang spe­cial ef­fects, its emo­tional core was pretty bar­ren and shal­low.

As some­one who has re­viewed movies for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions over the years, I can un­der­stand how some crit­ics fall all over them­selves to praise a film like “Roma.” When a pres­ti­gious pub­li­ca­tion like The New York Times or web­site like RogerEbert.com calls a film a “mas­ter­piece,” oth­ers tend to fall in line. No one wants to be seen as a clod, a tooth­less rube who lacks the depth and un­der­stand­ing and soul to ap­pre­ci­ate such a won­der.

And Cuaron has an im­pec­ca­ble pedi­gree. He won Best Di­rec­tor and Best Film Edit­ing for “Grav­ity.” He di­rected “Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban.” His “Chil­dren of Men” is a ter­rific film about fam­ily, com­mit­ment and love. Those qual­i­fi­ca­tions can make it hard for some­one to openly diss what is ob­vi­ously a di­rec­tor’s big­gest and most-per­sonal state­ment as a film­maker.

But while I ap­pre­ci­ate “Roma” for its film­mak­ing tech­niques, I just can’t praise the film it­self.

Shawn Ryan

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