Roma

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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Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda is the rare director who meets children at eye-level. In its early scenes, Shoplifters is full of chaos: a friendly, everyday insolvency that forms Shota’s small and airtight world. He sleeps in a cubbyhole, the one measure of privacy anyone gets in Granny’s micro-apartment, which is home less to a family than an accretion of people who come and go and crowd the place and live among the processed-food wrappers: a laborer, a laundress, a sex worker. Petty thieves all. And there’s a newcomer, herself a steal: Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is pilfered off her porch by Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jō) on a cold Tokyo night after a routine con at the grocery store. Since abusive parents had left her out, it seems an act of mercy.

Where other filmmakers might explain away the chaos, Kore-eda eases us into it. We do not need the details to get absorbed into these lives; in short order we forget that we never had them. With a wiry frame and stubble on his chin like salt stuck in the shaker, Franky (who was born in 1963) looks too old to be Shota’s father, and much too old to play at this game. Osamu pockets less pleasure from his piddling gains than he does tossing monkey wrenches into the system. His rejection of property rights may be the least materialistic form of greed; it makes him feel entitled to all commodities and all people, and leaves him with a tendency to blur the line between them. But Osamu’s pleasures are real and so is his paternal instinct.

It seems almost narrow-minded to demand clarification on the ties that bind these people when the bonds themselves are evidently so strong, but Kore-eda comprehends the gravity of these questions, and slips them into Shota’s growing pains. The boy is getting past the age where he can accept the ambiguity of his situation. He knows that other kids go to school while he is off stealing; he cares for Yuri but refuses to call her his sister; he sees cause for concern when she is labeled a missing person on the news. This film is an ensemble piece: it is not told from the child’s point of view in the sense that Rosemary’s Baby is told from the mother’s. It bats around at the lives crammed into Granny’s squalid apartment; it shadows their victories, and, without emphasis, neoliberal dead-ends. But we feel the dream cloud dissolve in Shota’s pubescence. Reality breaks through like cold rain.

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Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day is prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy about the persistence of nature, no matter how much we industrialize. In the end, with a cackle of thunder, nature comes down in torrents—soaking a bag of money and the corpses of grifters who’d spent the movie failing to launder it. What I liked most about this Chinese animation is that it’s shrouded in night the way that South Park is always covered in snow. The filmmaker, Liu Jian, crawls through that night like that lizard crosses the train tracks. His style bypasses implausibility; the whole vibe is permissively absurd.

Sometimes, it’s a little too casual. As in a Mike Judge cartoon, the only element moving inside any given frame is usually the mouth of whoever is talking—which is to say, droning on in a cynical deadpan. This, plus the strain of keeping track of sometimes crudely drawn figures—the female characters more so than the men—can be disorienting in a way that does not seem intentional. They leap in and out of the plot like dolphins doing flips. To be fair, the bricolage is a pretense for commentary: a kidnapped painter who spends most of the film in the big boss’s trunk doesn’t affect the story, but provides an excuse to bring up Fauvism. Moreover, he shows that even the loftiest professions are snared in the ambience of crime.

Everything seems to be part of the black market here; there’s a bleakness that’s familiar from movies imported from other communist (or formerly communist) regimes: films such as My Joy or Ida. For each of its various thieves, the stolen loot is seen as seed money to mend broken dreams: an escape from industrial ennui. As Jian sees it, Western-style progress only gets us so far. His exteriors have a geometric precision, but the frames pass by languidly enough that one can get lost in the cross-stitched decay.

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The Square

I didn’t find The Square insufferable, exactly, but I read into its “awkward humor” style and “biting” satire an embittered cry for help. And, without sinking into my armchair too deeply, I think that much of its acclaim (it won the Palme d’Or) stems from elite circles’ sympathy with the director’s predicament. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.

If Amour reflected the death of the haute bourgeoisie, The Square is its Night of the Living Dead. The tune of its dog whistle is the sadomasochistic tension that the cultural elite feels these days, a sense that their authority as “gate keepers” has been chipped away to the point of castration mingled with a contradictory pang of guilt over their status and privilege. This is a movie by a privileged white man about a privileged white man: the curator of a contemporary art museum, played by Claes Bang. (I don’t know if his name, Christian, has symbolic import or if that’s just what half of the men in Stockholm are named.) The theme of his story might be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that’s a trifle less damning when one considers that bad intentions are imputed to just about everyone else. Christian gets to be bonehead and egghead in one sleek package.

The art world provides such low-hanging fruit for satire that it’s faint praise to say that the director, Ruben Östlund, scores a few sour grapes. But the film makes no distinction between a Jeff Koons and a de Kooning, and assures us that the characters don’t either. The two artists who figure into the plot are foppishly detached and committed to the point of psychopathy, respectively; and it’s clear from the first five minutes, when Christian can’t articulate basic premises of art theory that have been ersatz since Warhol, that he doesn’t have much passion for his profession either—which leads one to wonder how and why he stumbled so far up the ladder.

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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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45 Years

A few years ago, a spate of critically-acclaimed prestige pictures like No Country for Old Men were scrapping from simple, grisly horror films like Halloween. The difference was the objective. Whereas slashers aimed for the gut, these “psychological thrillers” aimed for the head. The problem is that their aim was way off. A man chasing you with a knife doesn’t give you much to think about; it’s why he’s chasing you that does (though it’s probably not worth dwelling on unless you can take a breather).

If you shovel it out from under its pretensions, No Country is effective in a campfire-story sort of way, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has its anthropological merits. But these movies’ overwhelming acclaim could, in large measure, be attributed to intellectual pettifogging—Black Swan had me gagging on its existential feathers. (Risible though it was, I can’t hold the film responsible for the grotesque review it wrenched out of me.)

In short, the essential sham of the horror-chic cycle was that it tried to claim depth by wallowing in the ineffable: Chigurh was a monster born of our suspicion that human life is meaningless. He killed people because … the universe. Depending on your perspective, No Country is the statement on the human condition or a cop-out that sidesteps anything so frivolous as character motivation or a serious view of life from the ground. The thing is, thrilling is easy—it’s the psychological part that’s hard.

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M

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.