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by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

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FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Twice-Told Tale

This year's leading contender for best-picture Oscar
doesn't look much like last year's winner.
But it does feel a lot like it.

By Mark Jenkins

ODDS-MAKERS DISAGREE, but not that much, about the likelihood that Alfonso Cuaron's Roma will win the best-picture Oscar. At this writing, British betting parlors have it in first place; Las Vegas ones place it second, after A Star Is Born.

Either ranking might seem remarkable. After all, when was the last time a Mexico-bred director's cinephilic magical-realist period piece took the Oscar?

Oh yeah, last year. That's when Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water wowed Hollywood with its flamboyant style, affection for outsiders, and devotion to old movies -- all qualities it shares with Roma.

Roma differs from The Shape of Water in a few ways, of course. It's almost entirely in Spanish -- unprecedented for a best-picture contender -- and it was released in black-and-white.

But del Toro has said he considered doing Water in old-fashioned shades of gray, and only went for color because he was offered a larger budget if he did. And Roma is clearly a contemporary digital product, without the character of vintage film. Its monochromatic images are in fact anachronistic, since the story in set in the early 1970s, usually represented on screen by simulating that era's harsh reds and muddy greens.

Because of its look, and since it's sort-of-autobiographical, Cuaron's film is being classified as more realistic than del Toro's. Yet the movies are similar in aesthetic, and both focus on a kindred central character who's plucky yet vague. Roma's Cleo works for an upscale Mexico City family as a maid and nanny, and has little to say. Water's Elisa is a cleaning lady at a secret government facility in Baltimore, and is literally mute.

As The New Yorker's Richard Brody wrote in one of Roma's few outright pans, Cuaron "turns the character of Cleo into a stereotype ... a silent angel whose inability or unwillingness to express herself is held up as a mark of her stoic virtue."

Cuaron's and del Toro's heroines each tangle with embodiments of (safely historical) right-wing evil: Cleo's boyfriend runs away to join the circus, which turns out to be a paramilitary group that's being trained to kill protesters in cold blood. (What exactly are they protesting? Cuaron doesn't seem to think that's important.) Elisa rescues a humanoid test subject from a anti-Commie government enforcer so sadistic that he's played by Michael Shannon. (Water's scenario is seemingly more fanciful than Roma's, but its politics are actually more distinct.)

Although Roma manufactures a mostly naturalistic universe, both movies are obsessively choreographed, visually sumptuous, and reliant on CGI. Cuaron's black-and-white might seem more genuine than del Toro's garish color scheme, yet both films are slick and artificial-looking. Significantly, much of Roma was filmed on sets -- even the exteriors. Where Italian neorealists and French new wavers embraced the freedom and spontaneity of shooting on real streets, Cuaron prefers to control every aspect of the production. (He's writer and cinematographer as well as director.)

This is why Variety's Owen Gleiberman, in a friendly but skeptical review, noted Roma's "hermetic coffee-table-book purity" and "its God's-eye view." The director, he observed, "floats above the action he's showing us. He's become the filmmaker as neorealist deity."

Where Cuaron pastiches European neorealism, with a few nods to post-neorealist Fellini, Del Toro repurposes American B-movies from the same epoch. Yet Roma also pays tribute to Hollywood, notably when Pepe (the director's on-screen counterpart) goes with his family to see Marooned, the 1969 outer-space adventure that Cuaron would more or less remake as 2013's Gravity. (He picked up a best-director Oscar for that homage.)

The excursion takes the family to -- where else? -- the sort of grand cinematic cathedral sure to elicit purrs from an audience of movie-bizzers. (A vast cinema is also the site of a crucial moment in Cleo's romance with that right-wing brute.) But del Toro got there first. He had Elisa literally live atop the movies, in a shabby apartment over a once-palatial theater. For both directors, the essential portal to the past is the silver screen.

Roma interweaves several themes, but the one that propels the film toward the Academy Awards is its nostalgic, child's-eye account of the making of a filmmaker. Young Pepe has as few lines as Cleo, but he foretells his career by running around in a toy spacesuit. He's a young Mexican Spielberg, already communing with ET's in his head. He may even be mentally blocking the shots with which he'll turn his family's unremarkable story into meta-movie myth.

Thus the crucial, and utterly apolitical, scene in which politics brutally intrudes. A protester is chased into the furniture store where Cleo is in the middle of an everyday domestic task, and where he is coolly executed. In this long take (possibly stitched together digitally), the world bursts into the family's cocoon and then rushes out again. Stunned shoppers -- and the movie's viewers -- see the sweeping tumult on the streets through a window, as if through a camera's viewfinder.

At that moment it's clear that what matters is choreography, not meaning; image, not dialogue. Roma is not about Cleo. It's about Pepe, and his first steps toward developing a magisterial vision. The movie might be better titled A Portrait of the Artist as Young Cinematographer. Or, A Star Is Born.