Did you swoon over Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” his lyrical but meandering two hour and 15 minute recreation of his middle class Mexico City upbringing, as seen mostly through the eyes of his indigenous nanny?
The black and white memoir won three Oscars, as best foreign language film, for best director and best cinematography.
I found it rambling, somewhat shapeless, an indulgent movie that set the standard for Netflix’s “Great Filmmakers Get a Blank Check” series (see “The Irishman”).
The “making of” that movie documentary, “Road to ‘Roma'” (“Camino a Roma”) does nothing to soften my stance on the picture (lovely, but over-rated). Because if anything it allows Cuarón to double down on his choices.
His is the only voice, as eyewitness, to the movie. He is the sole interview subject. He describes the “challenge” working without a script and with a lot of non-actors around them was for the film’s professional actors. He talks about what the production designers did to recreate “the neighborhood I grew up in” (in Spanish, with English subtitles).
Nobody else gets to speak for themselves, even if they’re unlikely to have contradicted him.
The on-set footage is far less revealing than your average “making of” doc, although including a little casting clip and the odd rehearsal for the largely improvised “chaotic” scenes of family meals, sketched-out conversations and the like show us the technique he was using and what he was going for.
Cuarón says he was telling a story, pre-“Y tu Mama Tambien” — from the nanny of that film’s point of view.
He’s famous for paying homage to other filmmakers in his work, but he insists he did not for “Roma.” So all those Fellini-esque touches we all saw were…imagined?
A telling quote — he recalls the story of how Luchino Visconti, for his 1973 bio-pic “Ludwig” about Bavaria’s indulgent, Cinderella’s castle-crazy 19th century king, had the epic cakes made for feast scenes from the original ingredients baked in the original style, not something the viewing audience would realize and pick up on.
“A stubborn whim,” Cuarón says he USED to think when recalling that. But for “Roma,” a movie of “moments” and “details” and “memories” — whose director obsessed over tile and vintage clocks and products and posters and the tenor of street vendor’s calls in the chaotic market scenes — such forest-for-the-trees fanaticism was “liberating.”
At least that explains why I kept thinking of another infamous cinematic indulgence king, Eric von Stroheim. He’d do a period piece and insist that the performers wear period-correct underwear, which the camera would never see.
Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” is another ready reference for this “I can get this exactly right, matching my vision/memory” obsessive sort of detailed filmmaking.
Not that “Roma” is the debacle either of those two produced. All great artists are obsessives. But in the many boring stretches of “Roma,” it’s heartening to hear Cuarón confirm he at least realized how this might come off –“Come on, now. This is a bit much and kind of pointless.”
Fretting over that image of soapy water washing over the courtyard tiles, admitting that “details” were “the film for me,” not script (he didn’t have one), not the “narrative plumbing” that he and his co-writer brother are famous for, but “intangible sensations,” it’s as if he’s inventing a new “Netflix” style borne of old “runaway production” Hollywood horror stories.
He did it this way because they said he could. Unfolding overlong vignettes, changing settings that mean everything to the director/creator but little to the casual viewer, revelling in a sort of guilt-ridden “So THIS was my nanny’s life” way, but only occasionally — it’s a movie that isn’t aging well, in my memory, at least.
“Road to ‘Roma'” is a short refresher course on why that’s an Oscar winner that I have little urge to ever see again.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Alfonso Cuarón.
Credits: Directed by Andres Clariond and Gabriel Nuncio. A Netflix original.
Running time: 1:12