There is a certain grace to the way Alfonso Cuarón leaves the inner life of his nanny guarded in Roma, as if vouchsafed by the passage of time. It was her right to keep it from her employers even if her reasoning was a matter not of politics but of temperament. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) was inspired by a domestic servant employed by Cuarón’s family when he was growing up in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s. Her reticence is well-founded; when her peer Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) uses martial arts to express himself, all he can articulate is violence. Cleo’s reserve is an acknowledgement of powerlessness. Roma is about absent fathers.

In Children of Men, having a baby saves the world; in Gravity, the loss of a child gives Sandra Bullock’s grieving astronaut the composure to return to the earth: Cuarón invests maternity with dignity and valor. This gives him the virtue of being neither recently nor fashionably woke—though I think he sometimes mortifies his male flesh in his handling of male characters, especially the head of the family that Cleo works for (Fernando Grediaga): a vehicle for working off rage, like the family car. This tendency, at worst, jolts us out of Cleo’s story. But I think it also clarifies the director’s flair for melodrama. Fair warning: some of the examples I’ll give are spoilers.

For starters, Cleo’s glass breaks during a New Year’s toast—a bad omen already since she is pregnant with Fermín’s child. She is at a gathering of indigenous servants while their masters above get decadently drunk: the white revelers’ fireworks kindle a forest fire. The conflagration is, in itself, beautiful both graphically and as a device—until a mawkish Nero plants himself in front of the camera and singes all subtlety when he sings.

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Since I didn’t get you anything for Christmas, here are a few thoughts to shop around at holiday parties: mementos from another year biting the dust: one that’s been pretty good for movies, and I haven’t even gotten to some of the big-ticket items yet: Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk . . .

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and this is not special pleading, since I don’t meant to suggest that he has it worse than anyone else) is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. … Of the traditional attitudes there are only two—For and Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better than no change at all.

-James Baldwin, 1955

I had decided to bone up on Baldwin’s essays before seeing Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Beale Street, and found myself awed and ashamed: 63 years ago he’d stolen my thunder, articulated the thesis I wanted to make here.

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Embrace of the Serpent

The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.

At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong moviesincluding Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of Godare conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beachedVietnam in the first example and the Andes in the secondthe narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.

The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.

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An appraisal of Fritz Lang’s M, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.

You can read the full piece here.

The Giver

It takes imagination to make interesting its lack. Considering the ring of meh around Phillip Noyce’s film The Giver, I was surprised to see how faithful it was to Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning book. Its faith only breaks on commercial commonplaces—on Y-A clichés that have either blinkered the imagination of filmmakers or conked the source material into an ironic bow. Or maybe a little of both. Published in 1993, the novel predates the current Y-A boom, but is coolly prescient about which marks to hit. It is set in a Huxleyan dystopia: a Bored New World wherein conformity is the opiate of the masses—of everyone, really. Like Harry Potter, the adolescent hero, Jonas, is more special than he thinks; he is, in fact, more special than everybody else. And what makes him special is that he has been selected for an honor that all adolescents in our world are forced to endure: *feelings*.

Jonas’s society is literally sterile; starting at the cusp of puberty, its citizens take pills to banish the “stirrings.” Absent that biological impulse, and the concomitant commitment of love—a word that has fallen out of use because passions aren’t intense enough to warrant it—family life is blunted into a form of social husbandry. Giving birth is a dispassionate occupation that, like all occupations, is assigned to one by the Council of Elders when one is 12 years old. When the story begins, Jonas is at the tail end of his 11th year. One of his friends gets assigned to the birthing center, where Jonas’s father works. Other peers are dispatched to the Hall of Justice, the workplace of his mother. Jonas, however, is appointed to the hieratic position of Receiver of Memory, in whom all experience of past sensation, passion, nuance, and even color, is kept—all that was purged generations ago when the community retreated into insensate, choiceless sameness. The current officeholder is a trenchant, prematurely wizened man called The Giver; he transfers the memories of snow and war and sunburn and love to Jonas, who comes to understand that the tranquility of his parents and peers—who will, by design, never understand what he is going through—is a lie. This is a lesson that any teenage reader who’s high on hormones and low on perspective could appreciate, and a lesson that those who mean to court that demographic have shrewdly learned.

Lowry’s prose, however, is anything but shrewd; it is plaintive in its simplicity. But unlike, say, True Grit, it is barren of irony and other adult preconceptions, and, unlike The Hunger Games, it hasn’t been imagined in terms of TV or the movies and their straightjacket beats. Rather, it’s unadaptably abstract, like A Wrinkle in Time or Fahrenheit 451. (Even Truffaut couldn’t help that the concept of a modern society without the written word is only persuasive when rendered in the written word.) Jonas’s family’s dinner-table ritual, in which they talk out, and thus contain, the superficial pressures of the preceding day, might have been intended as a rebuke of the politically correct thought-policing of 20 years ago; but the thinness of these opioid sessions, with their vaporous good intentions and kiss-booboo grievances, holds up well. (These are omitted in the film, which is less suggestive—too blunt to be creepy.) Someone who has only seen the movie might be surprised by the novel’s lack of reference to technology. To me, Lowry’s spare descriptions brought to mind suburbia more than sci-fi; and yet the film’s aesthetic is the white-walled, food-pill fantasy of 50 years ago, which is by now a stock image of the future.

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Humanity is meted out in Ida, as if hope and happiness were going out of stock. Shot in standard—four-by-thee—ratio, and black-and-white, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film resembles the behind-the-wall hits of the era in which it is set, such as Miloš Forman’s Czech tragicomedy Loves of a Blonde (1965). But a style which once implied alacrity is, in Ida, painstakingly composed, with subjects trapped by staircases and power lines, stark contrasts and infinite sky, snow blowing nowhere. The muted expressions, which glaze the women’s faces and have few rest stops on the road from numbness to suffering, are circumscribed by the limits of one character’s experiences and the other’s expectations. It’s like Melancholia externalized: a perpetual, institutional post-apocalypse.

Ida makes one feel cloistered; it begins, fittingly, at an abbey, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows. Before this happens, the novitiate is instructed to visit with her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who she has never met. (Anna had been deposited at the convent as a baby.) Wanda, whose apartment is luxurious by Lodz standards, goes through cigarettes and assignations on an assembly line, and greases the gears with booze; she has the worn, black pout of Jeanne Moreau. When she informs Anna that she’s a “Jewish nun,” the revelation is loaded like a black joke or insult. To Anna, it’s a non sequitur. Shown no more hospitality than a photo of her dead mother, and neither expecting nor feeling entitled to more, she heads back to the bus station that afternoon—till Wanda has a change of heart. They embark for the provinces to find where Anna’s parents were buried during the war.

These stories of Jews hidden, and ultimately betrayed, under the gun, by their Christian neighbors—the only American variant that comes to mind is the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything Is Illuminated—are rarely told from a Gentile perspective. Seen through the prism of a “Jewish nun,” who is learning to react to external stimuli as a toddler, innately resigned to Original Sin, might, Ida’s journey has elements of both freshness and detachment. Pawlikowski’s take on it is both aestheticized and ascetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the disjuncture between his glacially paced, high-art cinematography and the glacial, dismal settings at first; the implication seemed to be that direct emotion would be too vulgar. But this is a story, essentially, of aftermath: told after the action has happened and history had been set. The film’s deliberative style gives the viewer unusually broad license to scrutinize each frame; it’s like looking at beautiful portraits in a gallery that don’t catch or create a moment in time but digest it. The two women embody “earth” and “grace,” but unlike Malick in The Tree of Life, Pawlikowski makes them flesh—lets them be flesh. In Wanda’s case, waxing flesh, sweating like a candle melting to the nub. A magistrate, she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” in the early ’50s because of her zealous prosecution—and execution—of enemies of the state. She gives the lie to the Soviet bureaucracy; public policy has absorbed her private thirst for vengeance, which neither blood nor vodka can sanctify.

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If Dorothea Lange had shot a father-son road-trip movie, it would have probably looked like Nebraska. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is Last Picture Show black-and-white: it emphasizes dignity rather than romance, showcases imperfections instead of concealing them. If Bruce Dern doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Neck Beard, the system is rigged. Nebraska gives Amour a run for its money when it comes to restraint—and it must be a testament to Alexander Payne’s pacing (and personality) that he can be this miserly with camera motion and not register as a stick in the mud. But he’s left the sludge to Bob Nelson’s script. Without the distanced look and tone, the gentle sense of humor, and the strength of a few performances, this movie would be as vacant as the plains.

Judging by fashion and technology, the film looks as if it could be set anytime in the last two decades—if not before—but its premise is rooted in baby-boomer guilt, circa Morning in America. In recompense for snubbing them in their youth, boomers placed their parents on a pedestal. If the notion that the older generation might’ve suffered in life was ever a newsflash, it’s a faded headline by now; but as a narrative device, it’s proven as durable as a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age. While Nelson has supplied Dern with some evocative understatements, he’s stranded Will Forte with a grown-up version of those lonely, sensitive drips from The Kids Are All Right and The Way Way Back. Someone must have made the assumption that comic actors like Forte and Bob Odenkirk would fill in hollow parts and light them with a funny aura. But with nothing to do but react to Dern, Forte is like Linus without the blanket—or the drive and imagination to get the hell out of Dodge. (Well, in this case, Billings.) And though the emotional core is between Forte and Dern, Odenkirk’s role is so vapid that he barely even functions as a contrast to Forte’s more forgiving baby brother. (Playing a thick-haired TV newscaster straight makes Odenkirk cringe at the waste.) Unflappable Dern has a daughter, too, who misses out on all the revelations due to her own daughter’s dance recital—but why write her into the screenplay if only to apologize for her absence?

I’m being rough on this elegant movie because I miss the films in which Payne spared his compassion for spiteful or pretentious losers, and even aggravatingly ambitious winners. Dern’s Woody Grant is terse, but also feeble and a dreamer, and both he and Forte’s Davey are so helpless that our sympathy is too easily won. Payne used to get by on his compassion because it was heartfelt, but also because there was an acid streak in his work that corroded all the easy forms of sentimentality. Here, his goodwill is displayed like window dressing for a holiday sale. He has a gift for satire without malice, and, at times, the patience instilled in his comedic timing is rhapsodic; his warmth in chilly settings conveys a heavy-lidded dreaminess that Hawaii couldn’t quite support. But the gamesmanship is gone, and, with it, the challenge, the kick. At 84, June Squibb—as Woody’s wife who flashes the grave of a former suitor to show him what he missed—provides some piquant nose-thumbing. There’s a hard country woman, who’s lived in this dust bowl too long to sustain any illusions, hidden behind the comic relief. However, the old Payne mischievousness—the deviltry that transcends impudence—really only shines through in how he treats one of Davey’s oafish cousins, who’s home from a prison stint for sexual assault. Payne’s deadpan here is killer.

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