A critic’s lament: Do you see what I see?

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Those imponderables challenge a critic with every review. For me, Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ is the best film of 2018 but a friend has a problem with it. Experienced and wise, an artist himself, a cultured man of taste, he writes: “I need your help. I haven’t been watching a lot of films for the past several years and am finally starting to do so again. The other night I decided to watch the screener of ‘Roma’. There was nothing in the first hour that made me want to sit through the second hour. What am I missing? Besides the second hour, or is it all in the second hour?”

One of us has failed. It’s not Cuaron and it’s not my friend. It must be me. I have failed as a critic to convey what it is I see and what it is I hear in this, to me, wonderful film. As we know, all taste is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one man’s meat is another man’s poison. We know all that. But it is a puzzle when you find yourself alone in an approving crowd. Why do so many love the musical ‘Les Miserables’ when it drives me up the wall? Why does the rock band Queen have so many fans when I just want to shut my ears?

In a review of a West End production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ many years ago, I tried to explain what it’s like when other people seem to get something and you don’t: “It’s like watching a sport you didn’t grow up with in a culture you don’t know. You always seem to miss the action and wonder why there’s cheering. Or it’s like being at a display of modern art where everyone else is nodding, yes, or sighing in awe, but you can’t see the faces for the cubes.”

With ‘Roma’, I suspect it’s the slow pace the filmmaker has chosen with which to tell his story. It might also be the story itself. Most films are about exceptional, gifted, strong, powerful and iconic figures – kings, queens, politicians, businessmen, superheroes, sportsmen – who gradually are revealed to be vulnerable, weak and ordinary, just like us. ‘Roma’ tells of an ordinary woman who is unexceptional with no gifts other than fortitude and dignity but who over the course of the film is shown to be a power of strength, the very backbone of a family for whom she is simply a maid, a cook, a cleaner.

Her day begins as she swabs the carport of a middle-class doctor’s home cleaning the dog-shit that the family carelessly steps around until the maid’s work is done. It’s symptomatic of what Curaon suggests ails Mexican society in the 1970s as will become clear when the film opens up and events come tumbling down including a violent street riot, an earthquake, a forest fire, surging tidal waves and personal tragedies for key figures. To me, they are vivid and epic sequences with indelibly subtle and nuanced acting; joyful filmmaking.

Perhaps my friend is right and it is the second hour and a quarter when everything happens but it takes the slow development to make it all so powerful. I think the key, however, is that he started to watch it at home. No matter how big your screen is at home, it’s simply not the same as watching at a cinema. Going to a movie theatre is an appointment and sitting in a crowd demands the kind of attention in which the distractions of home do not intrude. I truly believe that when we watch at home we do not see or absorb as much as we do at the movies. ‘Roma’ is on Netflix and for subscribers it’s as if it were free so it’s no surprise that people will stay at home and millions will. But some pictures are just made for the big screen and ‘Roma’ is one of them.

For that, I am sorry for my friend and all the many others who will find nothing to keep them watching, and very sad.

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