Alfonso Cuarón, Roberto Minervini, Roma, TIFF18, Toronto International Film Festival, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire
This blog is my story and this is the closing chapter on TIFF18. More so than most of the last ten years, I find that a cohesive narrative emerged during my schedule. It could just be that I came in searching for something in particular and have convinced myself that I found that very thing, but I believe there’s more behind this brief segment in the ongoing portrait of this critic and black man.
I finally got around to seeing Roma, the much-discussed (and lavishly praised) new film from Alfonso Cuarón. Based on his previous highlights – Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity – I knew I was in for a treat, but that distinction is a useless understatement. The film reveals itself as a shared memory of a time and place, sumptuously explored with exacting recall.
We spend time with a family – a mother (Marina de Tavira) and her four children losing their grip on their physician patriarch – living in the Roma district of Mexico City, but the real focus rests on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in maid and nanny who anchors the brood. She’s significant member of this family, intimately woven into the day-to-day interactions, beyond the cleaning, cooking, and child-care responsibilities. When she winds up pregnant, after a brief courtship with the cousin of another maid’s boyfriend, it is the family matriarch who takes Cleo to get checked out by a physician at the local hospital.
Cuarón eschews the sepia-toned nostalgia we might expect from such a rendering. Shot in black and white and set in the early 1970s, the whole affair has a vibrant immediacy, an urgency that belies the period trappings. Much of the buzz surrounding the film praises the poetic feel, the plotless movement through this moment. It is no frozen frame, no aged photograph with fraying edges. Instead, Cuarón places us in the scenes with a documentarian’s precision and a real artistic soulfulness. The specificity of the unfolding story isn’t being remembered or retold in these moving frame. We are there with Cleo and the family, in the happening.
There a unique parallel at work in the Roberto Minervini documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? The Italian-born director who now resides in Texas adopts an immersive approach in his presentation of four distinct narratives focusing on black people caught up in desperate situations in New Orleans and Jackson County, Mississippi, during the summer of 2017.
Also capturing the action in black and white, Minervini refuses to establish or maintain any kind of false objectivity, operating instead, as if he’s creating a narrative feature. His camera lives in the moments, walking alongside his protagonists – a single mother raising two sons at this time of heightened anxiety about the safety of black bodies, members of the New Black Panther Party protesting the ongoing murders of black people at the hands of the police, a bar owner and singer struggling to provide for her mother, employees and herself.
These people in the continuing series of daily interactions we observe become characters in a human story, every bit as epic as Cuarón’s Roma and equally as intimate. What we have, by the end of this double feature I put together in my screening mind, are the two sides of a priceless coin, a treasure that transforms cinema into life.
These stories aren’t direct reflections of my lived experience, not even close, but I am honored to claim them and proclaim myself richer for my exposure to them.