Alfonso Cuarón’s Worldly Approach

Between Two Worlds

 A dispatch from this year’s New York Film Festival. 


In its happiest and saddest event, this year’s New York Film Festival brought to the screen something like Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind. This was the film that Welles photographed almost in entirety, working on and off from 1970 into 1976, and edited in a partial, preliminary way, only to lose the footage to his financial backers. Recently, a group led by Frank Marshall, Filip Jan Rymsza, and Peter Bogdanovich rescued the material and assembled it into their best approximation of what Welles would have made of these hundreds of reels, and this was what the festival offered: the recovered Holy Grail of cinema.

The assembled faithful could have been forgiven for expecting the rains to fall and the Fisher King to be healed. Hooray! Alas. The Other Side of the Wind turned out to be not the Grail, but a self-portrait that the Fisher King might have made in his pain and infirmity. It’s about a grand old movie director played by John Huston—out of money, out of fashion, surrounded by aging cronies and harassed by young mimics, flatterers, and carpers—who is struggling to complete a film. You see long, discouraging excerpts of his work-in-progress: an imitation of Antonioni in his mode of wordless sex, radical politics, and youth culture anomie, presumably undertaken by the Huston character in a vain attempt to keep up with the times. Around this joyless parody is a framing narrative that I take to be Welles’s own vain attempt to keep up: an account of the great man’s last birthday party, supposedly shot vérité style by multiple observers and edited into an early-’70s mishmash.

For people with an infinite interest in Welles—like me—The Other Side of the Wind will provide inexhaustible material for study. But artworks don’t exist primarily for study purposes. They’re meant to live, as Welles’s work did from the 1930s into the ’60s, when he was among the people who created world culture. The Other Side of the Wind reveals a Welles who had retreated into a defensive position, reacting to a culture that had got ahead of him.

Which is to say: Thank you, New York Film Festival, for showing this picture. Now let’s talk about some of the movies on the slate that are alive, and likely to remain so.

Of those I managed to see, none could match the clarity of vision and intensity of feeling, expansiveness and intimacy, breadth and breath of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Set in Mexico City in 1970-71 and based on events in Cuarón’s childhood, the story in simple terms is about two women and the complementary troubles that bind them: the pregnancy of the unwed Cleo, a domestic servant of Mixtec background (Yalitza Aparicio), and the abandonment of Cleo’s high-bourgeois employer Sofía (Marina de Tavira), whose husband has walked off. But, of course, nothing is simple here: not the love between Sofía’s children and Cleo, the ignorance of the children about the events over their heads, the desperate anger that Sofía sometimes lets splash onto Cleo, or the current of violence that runs between poor and rich, country and city. Roma is a film about private life, and a private home, that keeps moving into the public realm, with Cuarón’s wide-screen, black-and-white camera continually traveling, tracking, exploring, revealing. It’s not just ostentation. Cuarón makes good on the old notion that the moral purpose of camera movement is to show that the world is whole; that there is always something beyond the edge of the frame, and then something beyond that. And because Cuarón is faithful to the continuity of the world, he also has a way of letting the world pour into his shots, adding more and more action to the image whenever the camera does happen to pause. Without even stirring, he can unite a puddle on the floor with the blue sky above, and allow you to feel what both mean to the maid who does the scrubbing.

Not as good as Roma (because, my God) but worthy of being discussed in the next breath is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s deeply moving Shoplifters, which won the top prize at Cannes this past May. Dramatizing the warm, loving exploitation of abandoned children for criminal purposes, it follows about half a dozen of Tokyo’s marginal people who have formed a makeshift family, living in a squat and stealing to supplement their meager wages and pension. Shot close to the pleasantly raffish actors (including two who are remarkably young) and imbued with the beautiful light that makes Kore-eda’s scenes feel like moments of eternity, Shoplifters implicitly adopts its characters’ worldview, so it never plays as a protest or exposé. As far as these people are concerned (with one key exception), this way of life is normal, though necessarily risky and clandestine. The plot revelations, which Kore-eda cunningly piles up at the end, are heartbreaking when they hit.

Alice Rohrwacher, whose film The Wonders was a highlight of the 2014 festival, returned this year with a delightful fable, Happy as Lazzaro, about a young man who’s the holy innocent of a poor, isolated settlement of tobacco farmers. Would you believe it, these people live in circumstances so primitive that they have just one light bulb, which they take from room to room as needed. That’s the premise, anyway, with Rohrwacher starting the film as if it’s going to be a throwback to 1940s Neo-Realism. Then Lazzaro (the sweet, open-faced Adriano Tardiolo) literally walks into a completely different kind of film full of chucklesome improbabilities, and squatters not unlike Kore-eda’s shoplifters. I wish Rohrwacher had thought of a better way to end the picture than to resort to a weak religiosity; but I’d gladly watch everything up to the last five minutes again and again.

The great Jia Zhangke returned to the festival with Ash Is Purest White, a welcome return to form after his previous, tedious puzzle-box movie, 2015’s Mountains May Depart. Once again starring Jia’s signature actress, the formidable Zhao Tao, Ash begins in 2001 in the criminal underworld of Datong City, where Zhao reigns as the moll of the hulking crook Liao Fan; then the film expands into a 17-year-long picaresque adventure across large swaths of China. Melodrama merges with documentary observation, documentary with landscape film, in the course of which Liao turns out to be a disappointment. Zhao is not. Witty, gritty, resourceful, and burning with the “righteousness” of which other criminals only boast, she endures.

Like Jia in Ash Is Purest White, Bi Gan uses an illegal handgun to move along the plot of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Unlike Jia, he’s a genre-mad experimentalist, whose fascination with cinema as a machine of dreams and memories makes him something like a Chinese David Lynch, only much more daring. For its first half, Long Day’s Journey plays like a scrambled film noir, in which a sorrowful casino manager (Huang Jue) returns to his home in the crumbling industrial city of Kaili to act like an amateur detective and mope about women, who in his experience are either physically departed or emotionally distant. Nothing makes much sense, but everything is gorgeous. Then, to start the second half, the detective goes into a theater to kill time, at which point you begin to watch the movie he’s seeing, and from which he will never emerge: a 3-D picture titled Long Day’s Journey Into Night, of which he’s the star. It’s an hour-long fantasia based on all the themes and motifs you’ve already seen, only now stretched into a single endless camera excursion through an irrational, nocturnal urban maze.

To Bi, camera movement is not moral revelation. It’s the royal road to our collective unconscious. I prefer Cuarón’s worldly approach (trust the author of Gravity to be well grounded); but the festival this year gave audiences a chance to see his work in close proximity to Bi’s thrilling oneirism and showed that both can be fully alive.

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