Oscars 2019: Let the Debates Begin

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)

The list of this year’s Oscar nominations is, as always, shot through with encouraging breakthroughs and disappointing setbacks. On the one hand, what an international roster of nominated directors: a Mexican, a Greek, a Pole, and one white and one black American. On the other hand, none of the five are women. Black Panther, a vivid celebration of black culture, has scored seven nominations, including best picture, but Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight won best picture in 2017, is looking at only three nominations this year for his lovely and heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk—they’re for his screenplay, adapted from James Baldwin’s novel; Nicholas Britell’s original score; and Regina King’s supporting performance.

The eight films racking up the greatest number of nominations are also, perhaps not surprisingly, the eight in the running for best picture. That makes it easy to take a look at them in pairs and check in on how they’re currently faring with critics and awards prognosticators.

Roma and The Favourite

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a painstakingly detailed and choreographed reconstruction of his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in which two ladies of the eighteenth-century English court vie ruthlessly yet hilariously for the favor of Queen Anne, lead the list with ten nominations each. Over the weekend, the London Film Critics’ Circle gave its best film and director awards to Roma, but also handed four prizes to The Favourite. As Kristopher Tapley, one of Variety’s awards-watchers, has pointed out, by the time the Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday morning, Roma had chalked up “twenty-one best picture prizes from regional groups. Alfonso Cuarón has collected thirty-two director awards, more than any other individual achievement of the year.”

In short, a sizable majority of critics like Roma. A lot. But for the film’s dissenters, there’s something suspect about a male director’s memory piece on the indigenous nanny and maid—Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, who’s nominated for best actress—who cared for his middle-class family. In an outstanding essay for Another Gaze, Phoebe Chen succinctly outlines the points of contention: “Cuarón’s whiteness begets a colonial gaze; Cleo lacks the discursive inner life of a fleshed-out character; Mexican critics love it; Mexican critics do not love it; Indigenous representation is an accomplishment; rich men should not make movies about their former maids.”

Roma seems to have infuriated Scout Tafoya, who argues in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books that it’s “a colossal mistake, a series of miscalculations born of unchecked hubris and hideous classism, the kind of film that drags the rest of its director’s body of work down with it.” Others, such as Pablo Calvi, are more measured in their criticism. Writing for the Believer, he posits that “before finding value in her story, [Cuarón] must infect her gaze and hollow out her point of view.” The point he’s driving toward is that “Cleo is, ultimately, a whitewashing device.” For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, she’s “a stereotype that’s all too common in movies made by upper-middle-class and intellectual filmmakers about working people: a strong, silent, long-enduring, and all-tolerating type, deprived of discourse, a silent angel whose inability or unwillingness to express herself is held up as a mark of her stoic virtue.”

Phoebe Chen has taken these points into consideration. Her rejoinder: “Maybe Cleo’s absent politics jar in a time when the general frenzy of a trash fire world means no one can afford to be apolitical,” she writes, “but the hard fact remains that many people live outside the aphoristic remit of the personal as political. For all the doomsday clamor and demands that art attend social problems with an urgency that matches their arrival, fictional characters have no obligation to be avatars of praxis.”

Again, on the whole, reaction to Roma has been overwhelmingly positive. The current issue of the New York Review of Books opens with a beautiful essay in which Alma Guillermoprieto places the film within the context not only of Cuarón’s oeuvre but also of her own memories before exclaiming in her final paragraph, “It is so bursting with life, Mexican life!” Caleb Crain, also writing for the NYRB, adds: “However much the intimacy between Cleo and her employers’ children may have been structured or conditioned by social and economic bias, the intimacy between them was real, the movie insists. To the children, in fact, it may have felt more real than their relationship with their biological parents. Cuarón’s genius is that he is able to induce an appreciation just as vivid in the viewer.” And of course, the most heartfelt appreciation comes from Cuarón’s close friend Guillermo del Toro, who headed up the jury that awarded Roma the Golden Lion in Venice last summer. He’s tweeted ten acutely perceptive “personal musings” about the film. “The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening,” reads the tenth. “Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both.”

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