“Roma”: The Big Screen as “The Abject”

December 29, 2018

Although Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” has generated considerable acclaim and is likely to get at least several Academy award nominations, if not win one or two, it has also been a flash point for shifts within the film industry. It is my understanding that the distributor of the film, Netflix, also was a major source of its funding, and “Roma” has consequently had an unusual patten of public exhibition. Instead of a limited release in “art houses,” followed by more suburban chain theaters, “Roma” has been available on Netflix for viewing alongside anyone who is binge-watching a series.

Linda and I walked over to the Art Theater in Long Beach two weeks ago to see “Roma” on the “big screen,” and I remain grateful that we did so; in fact, I’m not sure that I ever want to watch the film on a TV screen or a computer monitor. Given my age and that I am still working full-time, and have many unfinished projects, watching “Roma” on the small screen may not ever be a temptation. If so, it will remain one of my treasured memories. Even in the course of watching the film, I felt the nostalgia of recollection already at work. If someone wishes to sneer at what might be thought of self-indulgent sentimentality for one’s remote youth, then let them sneer. The palimpsest of the years spent watching Fellini and de Sica thickened as I watched “Roma,” and “depth of field” renewed its claims as a viable frame for a vision that allows those who are not given primary roles to surprise all onlookers.

Regardless of the number of awards it receives, “Roma” will no doubt be the subject of a fair number of conference papers at academic gatherings. “The abject” has not lost its keyword status, though its portrayal on the “big screen” may not be appreciated as it deserves simply because so few people will see it in that context and therefore expand their critique making use of that particular starting point.

Not everyone admires “Roma,” which refers to a specific neighborhood in Mexico City. (It is the equivalent of titling a film “Echo Park” or “Ocean Park” or “Venice,” if it were set in Los Angeles.) We had dinner with two friends the other night who said that if they had seen it in a movie theater, they would have wanted their money back. They did concede, however, that the image of the maid and nanny, Cleo (played with extraordinary subtlety by Yalitza Aparicio), holding herself in a difficult yoga pose while all the men around her flounder like inept novitiates was truly memorable. Such is the case, and underlines the case made by Ezra Pound a hundred years ago: “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” Still spot on.

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