The Two Reviews: Roma and Cold War

Roma (2018, Mexico and US, on Netflix in Spanish with subtitles)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Featuring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta and Verónica García.

As you may have heard, Roma is the highly acclaimed, award season favourite from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. It is his eight film, and his most personal screenplay yet – a semi-autobiographical account of his life growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s. The opening credits are moodily set against a puddle of water that reflects the sky above. The water is being swept into a drain in the off-street driveway of a middle-class Mexican home by one of the maids there. This turns out to be a young indigenous woman called Cleo. The family consists of children Pepe, Sofi, Paco and Toño, their mother Sofía, their father Antonio, a doctor, and his mother Teresa. Cleo and Adela are the two housemaids who live in a flat on the top floor of the house. It is clear from the beginning that Cleo is fondly embraced by the children. It is also clear that Sofía and Antonio’s marriage is on tenterhooks, signified by Antonio’s long absences away from home. These two matters are the fundamental core of the story and they are interwoven around a series of events that directly involve the soft-spoken and thoroughly likable Cleo.

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Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, an actual non-actor (well, prior to being cast in this film at least), and she is absolutely incredible. She serves up a perfectly judged performance that remains heart-warming throughout. If I cared more about the Oscars, I would argue vehemently for Aparicio to take the prize of Best Actress, and of course she deserves to take it, but suffice to say that I found her acting to transcend any traditional form that is recognised by Hollywood – in the same way as Maxim Munzuk in Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala or Bruno S. in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. The character of Cleo is treated with great reverence by Cuarón – likely based on his actual childhood housemaid. From early on, we become acquainted with her bright presence and her meek disposition, and it feels truly awful when something bad threatens her (such as an earthquake, Sofía’s reckless driving or a student protest turned violent). She is representative of a lot of things, not just from Cuarón’s childhood but of current events too – and this makes the film all the more resonant.

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There is a lot of resemblance here with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in that there is a treatment of the female protagonist as a representation of perseverance and defiance through violent and life-threatening obstacles (and this is from a male point of view too). Like Aronofsky, Cuarón explores the toils and burdens of being a woman, of carrying a child and of always expecting to be subservient to the working man. But this is where the similarities with mother! stop. The allegories and shocking violence is not as pronounced in Roma. Cuarón instead advances a very different visual narrative – a style he has now perfected over the past two decades. The story is communicated through long, single takes and wide, tracking shots that equate sometimes to a hallucinogenic, surreal atmosphere. We, the viewer, are observers to the story as one would be in actuality. We are the walkers on the opposite side of the street, the visitor sitting on the couch in the corner of the room, the daydreamer on a tractor driving across a field in the middle of a summer’s day. Cuarón ingeniously fills the background with quirky images and associations of his youth: low-flying planes in the sky (lives beside an airport) or a man being shot from a cannon at a street event as examples. Although this technique could easily have been dragged down by self-indulgence, Cuarón maintains a sense of craft that is almost Bergman-esque. He is grounded in presenting his picture humanely, and with reference to actual historical events.

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Roma is no doubt an extraordinary film – subtle, inspirational, and full of depth. Every long, meandering scene is a brimful of activity that signifies both everything and nothing. The one negative I did find was how overwhelming it was on first watch. I presume that things will settle down on a second watch, but I will have to wait and see. For now I am preserving a judgement that this is a masterpiece, as some critics have already claimed it to be. I can certainly commend Cuarón for his outstanding talent in film-making. His wonderful work is contributing to a certain Mexican flair in and around Hollywood these days (along with Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu) and it is fantastic to witness. But at the end of the day, I still think Y Tu Mamá También is his best, and so far, unbettered film. Roma will probably win “bigly” at this year’s Oscars, and I wish that it does, but somehow I think Cuarón is capable of an even better film in the future.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5

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Cold War (2018, Poland, France and UK, in Polish with subtitles)
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. Featuring Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn and Jeanne Balibar.

Cold War (Zimna Wojna) is a romantic drama set in Poland and France between 1949 and the mid-60s. Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love and Ida), it is loosely based on the lives of his Polish father and English mother, and is set around an on-off romance within the confines of the Cold War era.

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Accomplished pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a small team of musicologists touring rural Poland to record folk songs before they go out of existence. And thereafter, he forms a song and dance troupe of young performers who do ‘real traditional’ Polish music in choreographed stage productions. Wiktor meets young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), and they slowly start a relationship. But the stage performances have been partially hijacked by Government officials seeking to add pro-socialist, pro-Soviet propaganda. Wiktor and Zula plan to escape Poland, but Zula backs out and the two are then separated by national borders. Over the next two decades they meet from time to time at different tours of the Polish song/dance troupe that Zula stays with, as it travels around Europe. The two rekindle the romantic fire that has always been there. It’s a torn-apart love that they have, and their affair itself is a kind of Cold War, with emotional barriers and awkward truces and fleeting moments of intimacy.

Filmed in black and white, it is a stunning piece of cinematography by Łukasz Żal. The cinematography sets the mood, but is helped along by fine-tuned editing (Jaroslaw Kaminski) and an interesting soundtrack (Marcin Masecki). And despite all these admirable qualities and what looks to be an interesting narrative, I didn’t actually like the film that much. It all hinges on an unquenchable love story, but I found the romance entirely unconvincing. It’s the sort of relationship you have for six weeks before being relieved that you got out of that depressing period of your life. It is as if people in Eastern Europe only fall in love in a Woody Allen film; that is, in black and white with few smiles but a deep intellectual admiration of the older man, punctuated by long moody periods and contemplative silences.

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I think that Pawlikowski put a lot of effort into trying to recreate a classic-style European film of the post-war period, with their brilliant photography and quiet commentary on love and relationships in a world still living with the wounds of a devastating war. He has the photography down-pat, the mood for sure (black and white, cigarette smoke, jazz music and his own innovation – lots of staring out of windows reflectively), but the narrative is sheer dullness. No doubt it is all presented as such so as to reflect on the depressing mode of life in the Cold War period, where people only love each other reluctantly, it seems, and never smile. The film almost entirely rests on the strength of its imagery: for example, where the couple are together off-centre amidst a landscape shot. It is beautiful but contrived. And where is the pulsing love that keeps them coming back? It is more like, I am so bored I might try it again with that depressing person I knew years ago. The story is not sad, it’s depressing. And the ending is outright silly. The film would have made more sense if they were drug addicts unable to escape a destructive relationship. I am so disappointed in this film.

The good things in this production include editing, sound, music, acting and the cinematography is marvellous and is its absolute strength. But none of that was enough to actually make me want to sit through this film a second time.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2.5/5

 

 

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