Salif Keita, Dearling, Pierce Pettis

Salif Keita, Un Autre Blanc

There are few world music stars whose luster matches that of Mali's Selif Keita. If you've not heard him, you should and you'd better hurry; Un Autre Blanc is allegedly the final record the 69-yearold Keita will make. That would surely be a personal decision, as his voice is as strong as ever. As you can hear on "WereWere," Keita is a dramatic force whose vocals cut like a knife. Or check out "Lerou Lerou," which opens with a swaying tune behind steady beats before Keita is again the storm that ruptures the calm. On "Tonton," Keita is more subdued, though the song builds in a way that's influenced by house music and would certainly be at home in a dance club. The Afro Pop master is magical on "Gnamale," which opens with kora setting the melodic structure for spirited guest performance group singing from Lady Smith Black Mambazo. This one goes back and forth between soft (Ladysmith) and hard (Keita). What a record! If you hear another other worldly female vocals soaring Keita's female response singers, it belongs to still another Afro Pop idol: Angelique Kidjo. The record is dedicated to the albino rights movement. (I'll bet you didn't know that the United Nations recognizes June 13 at Albinism Awareness Day.) If anyone needs another reminder of the idiocy of racism, in West Africa, those born with light skin or are stricken with albinism face horrendous discrimination. You can think about this, but you really should appreciate Keita now. He is truly a global treasure. ★★★★

Dearling, Silver and Gold

Dearling is a Colorado-born and based duo of Dave Preston and Rachel James, plus the brotherly pair of Joel and Noah Matthews. I'm not usually wild about self-descriptions, but Dearling's fits: "Sounds, textures, and feelings that the West inspires." Add eclectic to the mix as Preston and James count among their influences this mixed bunch: Kelly Clarkson, Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Jake Shimabukuro, and Justin Timberlake. You can find some Fleetwood Mac covers on YouTube, but Dearling isn't a tribute band. The title song of their new EP is a Nashville-style country weepy about a war widow: There's no halo/No white glow/Just another human hand…. By contrast, there's some scorching electric guitar in "What I Don't Need," but the vocals have a decided pop flair. "Real Love" is a slow folk song with Preston singing lead and James harmony. "Champion" has ringing tones that build and segue to enhance the emotive power for a song about a man pledging to be your last stand/I'll be your champion. As of this writing, there are no YouTube clips of their new material, but you can sample some past music by clicking here.  ★★★

 Pierce Pettis, Father's Son

The human voice changes as it ages, which creates challenges for singer songwriters. Some, such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez, adapt and continue to sound glorious. Others–Pete Seeger springs to mind–continued to perform even though their vocal chords weren't up to the task. Pierce Pettis has been a roots folk/bluegrass troubadour for 40 years, but it saddens me to say that his voice is shot. Father's Son is his first new album in almost a decade and he is still capable of writing a fine song and churning out a cool turn of phrase. His new record centers on family and deep connections. It's also about trails he's traveled. On "TheAdventures of Me (and this Old Guitar") he sings, Oceans of gasoline/Million miles in my ear… and therein lie several tales. Pettis dusts off covers of emotional songs such as the love song "Very Same Moon" and Jesse Winchester's "A Showman's Life," one of the better reflections of a musician wondering if the rigor and loneliness are worthwhile. He also enlists such top-drawer backing talent as Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Ruth Moody (backing vocals), Reese Wynans (organ, piano), Gerry West (bass), and many others. At the end of the day, though, we hear a creaky, quavering voice that strains both high and low. It may be time for Pettis to concentrate on writing and curtail public performance. 


If Beale Stret Could Talk Says Plenty

If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Annapurna Pictures, 119 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)

There are two things to know about this film off the bat. First, it’s being billed as a timeless love story. That’s only sort of true. It’s faithfully based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, and Baldwin was not the sort to deliver fluff. Nor is Barry Jenkins, the director who gave us the magnificent and Academy Award-wining film Moonlight (2016). Second, the film is actually set in Harlem, not Memphis. Baldwin’s title is an oblique reference to a W. C. Handy blues composition from 1916. If you know anything about the blues, it’s that tragedy and circumstance threaten everything in their path.

We do get a love story, one between Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers  (Kiki Layne). They have known each other since they were infants and suddenly come to grips with that giddy moment in which familiarity blossoms into something much deeper. James and Layne are adorable as a couple. In fact, Jenkins’ treatment of those moments is one of the better treatments of those magic moments when love and passion shut out the rest of the world and give way to a universe of two. The first part of the film plays like romance pictures such as Say Anything, Splendor in the Grass, When Harry Met Sally, or The Way We Were.

Alas, a universe of two faced long odds for a black couple in the early 1970s. Fonny is a struggling sculptor and Tish a student. Their love is strong–the sort that leads to spontaneous yelps of joy–but where will such a couple live if they wish more than basement hovel? How will they negotiate a world in which a white man feels it’s his right to proposition a black woman whenever he feels a desire for­–as the expression of the time put it–a bit of the strange? What does one do about racist cops such as Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) who are just waiting for an excuse to administer a beating (or worse)? Indeed, how do they overcome internal obstacles such as Fonny’s evangelical mother (Aunjanue Ellis), or pay for a lawyer if you need an advocate for a crime you did not commit? The last of these is critical when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.

If Beale Street Could Talk has already won Golden Globe honors for Best Motion Picture Drama and it is certain to garner Academy Award nominations. Is it worthy? Yes, but perhaps not in categories one might expect. As noted, James and Layne make a cute, cuddly couple, but their performances don’t stretch either actor. They mostly do as their roles demand and are intoxicated with each other. James also does a wonderful job of showing how a man can be pushed to his limits. His tongue bends to his cheek in moments where we see him struggle to contain his rage.

In an unusual twist, Jenkins gives the juicier parts to actors in supporting roles. You’ll probably want to strangle the sanctimonious Ellis when she’s at her righteous worst, just as you’ll thrill to the put-downs from Tish’s sassy sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). If I’m handing out the Oscar hardware, though, it goes to Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. Hers is a performance that walks a tightrope between fierce determination and world-weary resignation. Also affecting is Colman Domingo as Tish’s father, Joseph. He is man trying to do right by his daughters no matter the risk, and he knows to back off when his wife arches her eyebrow or delivers a sharp rebuke. His laugh is infectious, and he’s streetwise in ways Fonny is not. I would imagine both Rivers and Domingo will get supporting actor nods, and I’d give another to composer Nicholas Britell for a score that enhances drama when needed, but gets out of the way when the screen action requires no help.

James Baldwin died in 1987, but had long before grown suspicious of whether black folks could trust whites. Beale Street isn’t cynical about that possibility, but it is leery of it. Credit goes to Jenkins for letting such questions linger rather than launching into a sermon. There is Officer Bell looming over matters, but also moments of hope such as Fonny’s encounters with a friendly waiter, Petrocito (Diego Luna) that seems like a genuine friendship. We also meet Levy (Dave Franco), a Jewish landlord drawn to people in love no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion. Is cross-racial trust real or naïve?

Is is Beale Street a lock for a Best Picture Oscar? It certainly wouldn’t grieve me if it won, but it would not get my vote. It’s a very good film, but not a masterpiece like Moonlight. It’s very easy to draw parallels between this film, the morning headlines, and Black Lives Matter. If we literally take race out of the (motion) picture, however, Beale Street is a romantic drama cut from the same cloth as lots of tales in which some terrible injustice separates young lovers. You know­, like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t mean to sound the slightest bit cynical; I liked this film very much and couldn’t possibly admire James Baldwin or Barry Jenkins more than I already do. That said, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman is among the films that are more Oscar worthy for the big awards. But by all means see If Beale Street Could Talk. Its tragic core reminds us of how far we’ve come and how much road remains before our feet.

Rob Weir


Shoplifters: A Film that Will Steal Your Heart

Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Magnolia Pictures, 121 minutes, (Rated R for brief nudity and sexual situations)
In Japanese with subtitles

Shoplifters is a classic "small" film, but this one captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In a quiet and unpretentious way, director Hirokazu Kore-eda raises socially contentious questions whose answers are ambiguous.

One of these is the split between absolute and situational ethics. Should we always adhere to a "thou shalt not steal" ethos, or are there situations in which it's justifiable? It's easy to assert the first, but if your family was desperate, would you steal to help? If you answer "yes" to that, you face the central problem of situational ethics. Where is the border between moral and immoral? Is it okay to steal from a corporate giant such as Walmart, but wrong to filch from a mom and pop store?

Let's up the ante. What would you do if you found a cut, bruised, and weeping five-year-old in a dumpster? No one has reported her missing, though there is a nearby apartment from which you've heard shouts, slaps, and screams. The little girl slides into the rhythms of your family. Would you be tempted to "adopt" her as your own? How about a boy you find abandoned in a car? Or a grandmother whose biological family wants her out of the way? All of this is fodder for the bigger question of what makes a family. As Nobuyu, the surrogate female head of household rhetorically asks at a key moment in the film, "Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?"

Throw in some hand-to-mouth poverty and you've got quite a rice pot full of sticky ethical conundrums. The film's very title tells you that the "family" relies upon unorthodox ways to make ends meet. Most visitors to Japan see a neat and prosperous nation, but this film's principals are squatting in a section of Tokyo analogous to U.S. swamp poverty. Their hovel­–just a few rooms in which everything from cooking to sleeping to sex occur–is chock a block with things useful and not: cooking pots, baskets, noodle bowls, scavenged junk, and pilfered items awaiting black market sales. Space is so cramped that when bedrolls pads are laid out, all six sleep in a big lump.

The occupants are:

·      Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), an inept construction worker and perhaps not overly bright paterfamilias
·      Osamu's wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who toils in a laundry
·      12-year-old Shota (Kairi Jō), who has learned his "father's" shoplifting skills and hand signals
·      5-year-old Yuri, posing as "Lin," who is learning the family trade from her "brother"
·      Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), the "big sister" role model, though she earns money in an R-rated peep show/sex club by displaying her beautiful face and ample cleavage
·      Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who extorts money from her biological family under surprising pretenses

Can such a unit bond? One of the film's subthemes concerns itself with whether Shota can bring himself to call Osamu "dad." Shota is an intelligent lad and he's pretty aware that shoplifting may be Osamu's greatest talent, just as he's cognizant that he and Nobuyo really care about him. But can a "father" sanction teaching a 5-year-old to steal? And, of course, there's the whole child snatching issue. Or, is it really "rescuing" unwanted and kids? Credit goes to Hirokazu for giving a new twist to the presumption that biology and parenthood are synonymous. He forces us to consider whether a child is an object that can be "owned."

Surrender to this film's Japanese aesthetics. In Western films, one usually gets to know characters early on, but their motives are suspect. A lot of Japanese cinema is the opposite. In Shoplifting we know the motive (survival) from the start, but it takes time to figure out how everyone is connected. This means it's "slow" film by Western standards–more atmosphere than action. In many cases, though, the film's mundaneness is a virtue. It is rare to see screen families portraying everyday life, especially if it centers on creative foraging such as that in Shoplifting. The film's pacing is difficult at first, but the slow-to-reveal back-stories somehow makes us care more deeply about each.

Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese you can tell you are witnessing fine performances. Kirin Kiki is superb as a chameleon who is the affectionate grandmother to the Shibata clan, but a calculating grifter when dealing with her son and his second wife. Hers is the sort of performance that would gain a best supporting actress nomination were she acting in English. It's also hard to take your eyes off Kairi Jō (Shota). He is a beautiful child with eyes that shine with fierceness and determination.

For me, though, Sakura Ando was the most memorable of all. In the film (though less so off-screen), she bore a physical resemblance to Sandra Oh. Ando's performance was subtle, but she conveyed a lot of information through a crinkly smile or a taut sad face. Hers is further proof that you need not wail like an arena rock star to get a point across.

I don't know if Shoplifters will be nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. It's certainly worthy of consideration. I highly recommend you seek out this film. I suspect it will be a while before it shows up online and it's a movie you'd not wish to miss.

Rob Weir
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Bury the Lead: A New Joe Gunther Mystery

Archer Mayor (2018)
Bury the Lead
Minotaur/St. Martin's, 304 pages.
★★★ ½

Archer Mayor is employed as a death examiner for the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I guess some people like to bring their work home with them. In 1988, Mayor published the first of his Joe Gunther detective novels and he hasn't slowed down; Bury the Lead is the 29th book in the series. Faithful readers have come to know many of the characters in Bury the Lead, but don't despair if you're a newbie. Mayor is the sort of writer who'd rather you got lost in the story rather than in dwelling in the past, so he drops plenty of hints to allow readers to fill in the blanks. 

Gunther is the head field officer for the fictitious Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VMI), and his girlfriend Beverly Hillstrom is actually Mayor's alter ego, a medical examiner whose autopsy reports help unravel a grisly tale of murder, revenge, and double-cross. Joe and his associate Samantha ("Sam") are called upon to solve the murder of a young woman dumped atop Bromley Mountain. It's pretty cut-and-dried. A stolen truck is caught on the resort's camera with a bundle in the back and one angle is good enough to make a positive ID. In very little time, Joe and Sam have a suspect in jail: Mick Durocher, a local guy with a spotty employment record and a drinking problem. Durocher quickly admits to the murder. Case solved, right?

Of course not. Down in White River another detective, Lester Spinney is investigating some prankish pyrotechnics at a warehouse owned by GreenField, a food distributor. It has the earmarks of devilment and disruption at the hands of a disgruntled employee. Because, by owner Robert Beaupré Sr.'s admission, his firm specializes in giving second chances to a lot of marginal folks, the list of suspects is long. When the pranks grow deadly, urgency increases, and suspicion deepens when Durocher's name appears as an ex-employee and he's cooling his heels in prison. Moreover, Gunther doesn't trust Durcoher's confession to the murder of a woman identified as Teri Parker. She was known to be a part-time hooker, but not the sort who'd take up with someone like Mick. There also seems to be something about the Beaupré family–Robert Sr. and his sons Robert Jr. and Dennis—that's out of whack with GreenField's reputation as a progressive company.    

Mayor introduces several subplots, one involving Gunther's longtime associate Willy Kunkle, Sam's husband, who is out of commission with complications from having been shot. (This occurred in a previous Mayor novel.) Kunkle's pain sends him into a downward spiral of OxyContin and alcohol abuse that must be sorted out. Another thread involves Beverly's 24-year-old daughter Rachel, who has just landed her first professional job as a photographer and writer for a Brattleboro newspaper. Before the final reveal we are also taken to Massachusetts, inside a Springfield (Vermont) clinic, and to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which is treating an Ebola case. Not to mention that the novel's body count surpasses Vermont's yearly murder rate. (Fourteen in 2016, the most recent report.)

Too much? Yes, I think so. Mayor has so many irons in the fire because he is trying to incorporate recent news stories to make the book more timely, weave in background material for newer readers, and toss chew bones to longtime readers who already know most of the characters. Indeed, a few of the side tales could be viewed as padding. This is especially noticeable when a major reveal occurs when there's still about 20 percent of the novel left. And, if you know Vermont, his characters sure do a lot of hard driving.

What Mayor does well is show us the not-so- pretty side to Vermont's outward beauty. He takes us into trailer parks, dilapidated apartment buildings, and into towns–White River Junction especially–whose profile isn't the stuff of Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Another such locale is Fitchburg, just across the Massachusetts line. Mayor expertly captures its postindustrial seediness. He's also a good storyteller, even when he's guilty of interjecting improbable elements into a narrative that occasionally feels more like a news headline culling than a plausible Vermont tale.

If you're a fan of the Joe Gunther series, you will devour Bury the Lead as if it's the latest installment of a favorite soap opera. If, like me, you are a casual reader of Archer Mayor, you will find it a perfectly acceptable way to wile away a few winter evenings. Hey, not everything has to be War and Peace.

 Rob Weir


Cody Jackson, Dave Burchfield, Rachel Baiman: Recent Releases

Cody Jackson, Where the River Meets the Sky (EP)

Isn't Cody Jackson a great name for a musician from British Columbia? The talent matches the handle. As heard on his new 5-song EP, Jackson sports a big voice that often calls to mind the husk in Richard Shindell's timbre. "Where the River Meets the Sky" isn't a good song; it's a great one. When Jackson airs it out, you can conjure big mountains, vast horizons, and cold rivers bending beyond the eye's vanishing point. The album version has added reverb, but I've seen videos of Jackson doing this one justice solo, and the fact that he plays an Epiphone dreadnaught further endears him to me. (It was my first guitar.) I also admire Jackson's ability with the pen. Who hasn't had a relationship that could be described as "Right Place, Wrong Time?" In spirited bursts and stops, Jackson proceeds to sing: We started out as two unknowns/A king and queen of different roads. That line alone tells you things probably won't go well. Ditto a line from "Unchanging:" I know I'm free of sin/But my actions speak differently. My second favorite song (after the title track) is "Cherished One," which is sparse yet powerful. Jackson builds the song through the use of ever-so-slight catches in his voice that dial drama up a notch without venturing into overkill territory. As a musician, singer, and songwriter Jackson is both expressive and impressive. ★★★★

Dave Burchfield, Beginnings

Dave Burchfield took a six-year hiatus from music that he thought would be permanent, but he's back with a band and a new EP that's ironically titled Beginnings. This is bluegrass from the folk end of the spectrum. He often takes his time laying out his tune and his light voice can sometimes get lost even though the melodies are generally quiet. Still, it's nice to welcome him back onto the trail. Sample "Arkansas" with its spare but pretty melody. "Have Tried" is also a good one, a waltz about that age-old dilemma: is this relationship working or not? ★★★

Rachel Baiman, Thanksgiving  (EP) 

Rachel Baiman sings, plays banjo, saws a mean fiddle, and can pick it on the guitar. You can sample her country, bluegrass, and old time music wares on her new EP Thanksgiving. Baiman has been clearly influenced by the late John Hartford. You can hear this on "Tent City," whose melody lines evoke "Gentle on My Mind." She also does a cover of "Madison, Tennessee," which isn't one of Hartford's but was penned by the John Hartford String Band. There's a fine video of her singing this one with Molly Tuttle and if you're not impressed by Tuttle's cross picking, there's no pleasing you. I will caution that Baiman's voice is nasal and deliberately muddy at times. This might not be everyone's taste, but she sure can play. ★★★


Mary Queen of Scots? Not Really

Mary Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Focus Films, 125 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, implied homosexuality)

Audience scores for Mary Queen of Scots have been tepid and it’s easy to figure out why. The 16th century players and details of Mary Stuart’s tragic reigns are convoluted even for historians who have studied Scottish and English history. For the non-historian, it would take a mini series to clarify the key figures, motives, and intrigue–not two hours plus change. Director Josie Rourke could have gone in either of two directions: simplify the details and withstand the wrath of historians; or just call the film Mary, make it fictional, and state at the end that it was loosely based on Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Alas, director Josie Rourke tried to hybridize those options.

Rourke ought not to have assumed familiarity with the events portrayed on the screen. I overheard two remarks as I was leaving. “I had never heard of Mary Queen of Scots,” said one woman. Her friend replied, “I think she’s the one they called Bloody Mary.” (Nope!)  If you want to get a sense of the challenge Rourke faced, just peruse Mary’s Wikipedia entry and tell me how much of it you understand the next morning.

Here’s a Mary Queen of Scots skinny. The Tudor family took over the English throne after the War of the Roses (1455-1487). Years later, a Tudor you’ve heard of, King Henry VIII, went through six wives in his quest for a male heir. When his first wife, Catherine, failed to bear a son, Henry sought an annulment. When the pope refused, Henry booted the Catholic Church, and England became a Protestant nation. His third wife gave him a sickly male heir, the future Edward VI, but he died in 1553 with no issue. At that point Mary I, Henry’s daughter to Catherine, took over the throne and held it from 1553-1558. She was history’s “Bloody Mary,” as many died in her attempt to reinstate Catholicism in England. Guess what happened when she died? Her Protestant sister to Henry’s second wife took the throne. Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for 50 years (1553-1603)., which didn’t sit well with those Englishmen who were Catholic.

Henry never sired a virile male, but some of his siblings did. The following questions mattered in the 16th century. How closely related to Henry were those seeking to sit on the throne? What was their gender? Were they Protestant or Catholic? Mary I and Elizabeth I were direct offspring, but this was not a time in which a woman’s right to rule was widely accepted. Had Elizabeth birthed a male child, she would have gone from queen to regent­–a caretaker­­–until her son reached a suitable age to rule. Elizabeth sidestepped this by never marrying. (Whether or not she was the “Virgin Queen” of legend is unclear.) In other words, females were pawns in a male political game.

That’s the deep background of Mary Tudor (1542-1587), except for this. Mary had a better claim to the English throne than her cousin Elizabeth, as Mary’s lineage passed through proper male bloodlines. At 14, Mary Tudor was married to the heir to the French throne. She was queen for 13 months when her husband suddenly died. She returned to Scotland (where she was queen) in August 1561, an attractive 17-year-old widow.

Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) is set in the crucial year of 1569. Suffice it to say that very few in Scotland wanted a kingless queen­, especially not her illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who had been regent until Mary returned; or the Protestant firebrand minister John Knox (David Tennant), who added sexism to his long list of intolerances. In 1565, Mary wedded her comely first cousin Henry Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), an error of judgment. Darnley was frivolous, vacuous, vicious, and (probably) gay. He managed to help murder Mary’s beloved Italian secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and impregnate Mary with the future James VI of Scotland/James I of England before his many enemies engineered Darnley's death. They also forced Mary to marry the Protestant Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), who probably raped her. With her son in the hands of the Earl of Moray and danger everywhere, Mary fled to England and hoped that her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) would protect her. Had Mary been less proud and scheming that might have happened but in 1587, she went to the chopping block as an accused traitor.

If your head is swimming, I can assure you that this summary is more coherent than the film. The film has a few redeeming features, the biggest of which is Ms. Ronan. Unless I miss my mark badly, she will soon become the Meryl Streep of this generation. Her Scottish accent is really good; she carries herself with royal, often haughty dignity; is physically appropriate for Mary; and is luminous on the screen. Also wonderful is John Mathieson’s cinematography, even if those who’ve been to Scotland and northern England recognize that his is an often-illogical travelogue of images. David Tennant is also spot-on ominous as Knox. He even looks like the statue of Knox in Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

Nonetheless, Rourke’s hybridization efforts call attention to the film’s ahistorical details. She calls upon a crew of National Theatre actors to flesh out the cast. Each is up to the task, but none of them would have held such important positions in the 16th century, and you will see more black actors on the screen than you’d see in a month of travel in Scotland. Rourke also attempted to make a feminist bonding film. Okay, but to do so, she reduces Mary and Elizabeth to sob sisters (semi-) bonding over male dominance. (In real life, the two never met face-to-face, and no one ever said Elizabeth was soft!) In addition, Robbie is merely a so-so actress and she’s out of her league cast against Ronan.

Let me state again that a film about rivals in love, politics, and power simply called Mary would work better–sans Max Richter’s overdone soundtrack–but what we see simply isn’t Mary Queen of Scots. Alas, I can foresee others leaving the theater saying, “I never knew there was a Mary Queen of Scots.”

Rob Weir


Roma a Not-Quite Masterpiece

Roma  (2018)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Netflix, 135 minutes, R (absurd rating for full frontal male nudity)
In Spanish, Mixtec, English with subtitles

I know several friends who grew up with household servants. They insist that they considered those individuals to be “members of the family.” It’s a nice sentiment and they no doubt mean it, but it’s also the ultimate bourgeois conceit. The “help” almost always have families of their own, plus they cannot be family members for the same reason that a president cannot really have “consensual” sex with an aide; the power differential creates a gulf between superior and subordinate.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s new film is what reviewer Owen Gleiberman sagely calls a “meditation” on his boyhood. The title refers to the middle-class section of Mexico City where Cuarón lived as a child, though you could be forgiven if your immediate thought was of Fellini. Roma is gloriously filmed in black and white and its episodic structure is evocative of earlier auteurs such as Fellini or Bergman.

Roma centers on an haute bourgeois family in the early 1970s. This was a chaotic moment in Mexican history in which a series of American-backed authoritarian presidents were in power that didn't hesitate to unleash the Mexican army to put down student protests. If you recall or have read about Kent and Jackson State, you know how the combined six deaths threw American society into paroxysms of anger and remorse. That was peanuts compared to Mexico, where the army killed hundreds in 1968, and another 120 during the Corpus Christi demonstration of 1971. The latter is touched upon in Roma and “touched upon” is the right description. We see it from the POV of our middle-class family as they watch from the window of a furniture store to which they’ve thoughtlessly traveled because their pregnant maid needed a crib.

The latter act is one of the ways in which those with money spin the “member of the family” tale. Roma focuses closely on Cleodegaria Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two live-in maids caring for a middle-class family with four minor children. “Cleo” (named for an Agnes Varda film!) is from an impoverished Mesoamerican Indian family. She and coworker Adela dearly love the children, hence materfamilias Sofia (Marina de Tavira) doles out small kindnesses and considers herself their benefactor. That is, until she barks orders at them to clean up the shit in the narrow patio/garage where they keep their dog penned all day, or when she nudges them to drop everything and run an errand. Much of Cuarón’s film is silent; he needs no words to convey how hard Cleo and Adela work while Sofia and the children obliviously move through their routines as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have others pick up after them or indulge their spontaneous whims.  

The class dynamic is all the more absurd given that this bourgeois family is dysfunctional to the point of impending dissolution. The father is an egotistical doctor who is as tyrannical as the country’s leaders. Although the kids initially think he’s on his way to a conference in Quebec, he’s actually leaving them for his mistress. To add to the already lopsided gender dynamics of the 1970s, it was very hard to force men to support the children they abandoned–a dynamic that plays out several ways in the film. Sofia seeks to maintain a veneer of materialism and stability, but we suspect the handwriting is in the wall.

Roma is also a film about race. If anything, Mexican society is more racially stratified than that of the United States. Some have called it a caste society, as Mexico parses race in more than the black/white paradigm that prevails in the United States. There is, however, no doubt that Spanish-speakers of Iberian origin view themselves as superior to indigenous peoples such as Cleo and Adela. The scene of Cleo visiting her village displays poverty and deprivation that evoke South African townships under apartheid.

Class, gender, and race…. These certainly give Roma contemporary relevance, even if the setting is in the 1970s. There are other reasons to watch this film. First among them is the astounding cinematography. From the opening shots of water rushing across tiles and swirling into a drain onward, Cuarón’s assemblages of images gives credence to my long-held assertion that black and white is frequently a more creative medium than color. If you're skeptical of that remark, watch carefully the wordless sequence of five people in a car returning from a beach holiday and get back to me. Cuarón uses light and contrast in ways that rival the impact of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

Several critics have hailed Roma as the best film of 2018, and it has already won several awards. I understand the hoopla, but I must stop short of declaring it a masterpiece. The film’s problems occur when Cuarón has to do more than just point the camera. His is not really a conventional narrative but still, there are so many telegraphed scenes in this film as to suggest Chekov’s gun was loaded with a full clip. At every juncture the story could have veered, Cuarón aimed straight toward where you would anticipate. Why such a conservative script for such innovative filmmaking? This is a semi-autobiographical film and Cuarón is still in touch with the woman upon whom Cleo is based. One wonders if there is also a way in which Cuarón still doesn’t quite get the racial dynamics of his own film. By this I mean there is a way in which this film could easily be read as a depiction of the Noble Savage, an inference that seems especially palpable in the film’s closing sequence.

Cuarón is the director who also gave us Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, one of the Harry Potter films, and Children of Men. The last of these remains his masterpiece, though Roma is a superior work of craft. It is an almost-masterpiece, but Cuarón didn’t get enough distance from his past to see the full extent of his childhood false assumptions.  Rob Weir