Chattanooga Now Mind Coffee: Cardboard characters reduce emotional impact of 'Roma'

Chattanooga Now Mind Coffee: Cardboard characters reduce emotional impact of 'Roma'

January 9th, 2019 by Shawn Ryan in Chattnow Movies

This image released by Netflix shows filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, left, and actress Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma." Cuaron, Bradley Cooper and Spike Lee are among the nominees for the Director's Guild award for outstanding directorial achievement. The DGA announced its five nominees Tuesday in one of the most closely watched guild awards leading up next month's Academy Awards. (Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP)

"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.

Shawn Ryan

Shawn Ryan

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

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-and-white 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.

Contact Shawn Ryan at mshawnryan@gmail.com.