Roma ★★★½

Is an aesthetic intrinsically political? Ever since loud guitars were stolen from the punk underground to become the commoditized sound of revolution (any similarity to actual revolution being purely coincidental), my inclination has been to say no. But does this play out any differently in film? Is it intrinsically more "honest" to tell a story about the underclass with shaky handheld camera, washed out colours and 16mm stock than with sumptuous aestheticized tracking shots on state of the art equipment and Dolby Atmos sound design?

ROMA is hardly the first film to raise this argument; in fact, ROMA brought to mind not only the qualms that many of my cine-associates have with Sorrentino but also everything from The Dardennes to Satyajit Ray to Lars von Trier to the history of WPA photography. I haven't yet read the pans of those who have slated Cuaron for using impeccable technology and a position of privilege to tell a story inspired by his former maid, so I don't know their precise complaints (other than the general 2018 belief that imperfect well meaning allies are more worthy of excoriation than those with actual malevolent intent). But I do think there is a fundamental issue of where the technology fits in re the imputed viewer that is never resolved, specifically, what we're supposed to make of the sound design.

Cameras can serve multiple functions: they can observe, they can give us a point of view, or they can displace us into the pov of the person being observed. With ROMA, Cuaron often - but, crucially, not always - uses the camera as a distant impartial observer, and engineers the sound to match to an astonishing, unprecedented degree. When the camera moves, so too does the sound field, whether it's a slow drift or a shot/reverse shot.

It's an interesting idea, and by and large I'm down with it. But it falls apart when the camera language of the film leaves "distant observer" and enters "empathetic observational" mode. There's two times I recall distinctly where we're close-ish on Cleo's face - once in a hotel room during a tryst, once in a hospital months later - and suddenly, while the camera asks us to inhabit Cleo's perspective, the sound places our field of hearing as far away as possible, over the audience's shoulder. It is, to be polite, confusing as fuck.

And it does, I think, point to a political failing in Cuaron's aesthetic. If one takes the film to be (among other things) a well-intentioned act of empathy towards his former caretaker, one has to contend with the question of what it means when formal commitments trump the full use of the empathetic toolbox of film. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot I found laudable and ultimately moving in ROMA. And I don't think "shooting pretty pictures of poverty", to vastly oversimplify, is intrinsically bad. But this shotgun marriage of subject and form can't hide its strained union. Even if it is, arguably, a fucking masterpiece.