What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?
Things are wrapping up here at the festival, but that hardly means what’s been shown is any less exciting. In fact, I’ve seen two of the best films here. As I wrote about briefly during the Cannes Film Festival in May, one of the most unique aspects of attending an major international festival is the thrilling mystery of new films premiering before hype, trailers, interviews and general conversation rob the moviegoing experience of the sense of the unknown. This was certainly the pleasure for me upon encountering Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which just won the Golden Lion in Venice last week but which I studiously avoided reading about. Which is not to say I intend on spoiling much of what happens in the movie—especially since it doesn’t so much tell a story as immerse the audience in a historical environment and a milieu—but rather that the form Roma took really caught me off guard in a way that was enthralling.
After the audacity of Gravity’s 3D, single-take sequences of stunningly elaborate camera gymnastics and special effects, Roma’s approach towards showing us the life of a live-in maid of an upper class Mexico City family in the titular neighborhood in 1971 is remarkably hands-off. Resembling a combination of the grand compositions of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Loveless, Leviathan), the diorama-like clutterbox cinema of Wes Anderson, and the seemingly neutral observational distance of the Romanian New Wave, Cuarón keeps the camera well back from the action, implacable in its discretion. Sometimes it is still, occasionally it tracks alongside a character walking down the street, but noticeably its boldest movement is panning with utmost tact to scan across the breadth of the large family home. In this movement, the film tracks, almost like a surveillance camera, the routine of one of the house’s maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Pinned by the camera’s attention, Cleo is our focus, embedded in Cuarón’s living fresco of the era.
Serving as his own cinematographer, Cuarón shot the film in the supremely detailed 65mm digital format, which when combined with the camera distance from the set and the actors, gives a genuinely epic amount of screen space to the immaculate, multitudinous details recreating the rooms, homes, streets, cinemas, cafes and stores of Mexico City in 1971. Though based on the director’s family home and conceived as an ode to the three women of his childhood—the maid, his mother, and his grandmother—the film remarkably remained unstained by the sentimentality of nostalgia. Roma evinces a hyperrealism achieved not through visceral technique that interprets verisimilitude as hectic impressionism, but rather as the extreme density of historical and social observation of everyday things made monumental by overwhelming production design, massive image format, and the big screen. (It is thus sadly ironic that this film is owned by Netflix, for on home video this unusual epic-of-the-ordinary quality may be wholly lost.)
The story, such as it is, is that of the maid, whose presence allows us access to observe the environment of a rich family of the era. Cleo gets pregnant by a boyfriend just as the family’s marriage is going through its own problems (the father is mostly absent), and indeed as is Mexico, for Cuarón drops hints of mysterious paramilitary training and gradually builds towards integrating the Corpus Christi massacre into the routine of the family’s life. By aligning the storytelling with Cleo, the film provides a certain perspective of history, seen first through the service class, behind whom lays the wealthy, and behind that, the larger movement of the nation. Not particularly interested in behavior or plot until the culmination of the pregnancy (making his third movie in a row with a climatic, heavily symbolic birth), Cuarón stages few profound anecdotes, focusing on the quotidian over plot perhaps because his canvas is so broad. Instead, the film relies on the pressing weight of the totalizing thoroughness of social and historical itemization for impact, though one can hardly avoid the obvious contrasts between of home’s inner enclave to the surrounding city streets and businesses, the maid’s bare room to rest of the house, the poor countryside and a rich man’s estate. In fastidiously re-creating a year in his nation’s history through the details that surrounded his own life, Cuarón makes Roma an homage to the cloistered and distanced existence of the rich during national (social, political) tumult, to the safety such an environment provides for a minority of lower class workers, and how this redoubt thereby lends the blinkers of the rich to those poorer than themselves. And as the family home is to Cleo an enclave partially ensconcing her from the outside worries, so Roma is to the audience, creating a past sealed and immaculate, for us to wander around within safely.
While Roma judiciously remained at a distance from its subjects so as to better give us a sense of the scope of the world in which they live, Italian director Roberto Minervini takes the opposite approach in his searing, deeply moving documentary, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?. His film, shot digitally in confrontative, high contrast black and white, gets close, very close, to his subjects, weaving together three separate stories of black Americans from New Orleans such that we’re aggressively faced with their strength, anger, fear and sorrow much more than with the details of their lives and homes.
Framed between opening and concluding scenes of the crafting of Mardi Gras outfits in a tradition of African Americans disguising and celebrating with Native Americans costumery so as to parade freely, the film starts with the young teen Ronaldo and his younger, more skittish brother Titus. They are introduced in a declaratively on-the-nose scene that earns its heavy hand: Encountered in a haunted house where Ronaldo encourages the increasingly terrified Titus onward, it announces the film’s subject as the environment of fear America has constructed for its black citizens. Later, the boys wander the streets, play by the nearby levy, and we see between them a touching dynamic of the older struggling to be a role model to his brother while their father is incarcerated. In several scenes of compassionately tough admonition, the boys’ mother insists on their returning home each day safely before dark, and that Ronaldo take on a leadership position with his brother, telling the teen of the pressure he has to overcome to be an example in a world that has so many treacherous temptations. With Titus, we see Ronaldo be genuinely thoughtful and encouraging, but we also see him straining to act the role of a leader, confident and authoritative, introducing a theme of performance for others that continues through Minervini’s other characters.
Bar-owner Judy is the most astounding presence of the entire picture, a woman who has seemingly seen and experienced it all and isn’t afraid to testify, rage, and inspire. Her bar, which she struggles to keep under her ownership, becomes a gathering place for communal anger, lamentation, and solidarity, led by Judy’s nails-tough exterior and deep reservoirs of feeling. Several of her admissions to and encounters with friends, and clientele around her contain the emotional impact of a gut punch, and a later impassioned musical performance at her place lends the film a very welcome positive cathartic release. But it isn’t long before we go deeper with her into her past, her struggles with abuse and drugs, and her current challenges with the gentrification of her neighborhood not only pushing her out, but also her elderly mother. The film’s last thread on a third kind of grass-roots neighborhood leadership focuses on the New Black Panther Party, whose induction meetings we see, along with their community outreach to the homeless, unofficial investigations into nearby racist crimes of inconceivable horror (the beheading of a black man, whose body was then burnt in nearby woods), and highly vocal but non-violent rallies keeping the names of slain black men alive and admonishing the police for their indifference.
Thus Minervini’s film takes the opposite approach as that of Alfonso Cuarón, for What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? plunges into the thick of it, conjuring long histories of pain and anger engendered by American society and institutions—and conjured in the immediacy of those things blazing directly before our eyes. Any kind of cinematic distance would be an effective denial of the profound acuteness of subjects’ tenacity in the face of a fearful, deeply imbalanced existence in their home country. Roma achieves a reflection on a truly enormous scale, and we will be able to find it in for many years to come a remarkable accumulation and layering of re-imagined anthropology. But Roberto Minervini’s film is a reminder, one we sadly always seem to need, that history’s sprawling canvas is populated by individual lives that are desperately struggling to live and make the world around them better for those who come after.
A harsh lesson indeed, Kelley, to leave the festival on, but one I welcomed. I have to admit that despite what the program promised, I was for the most part let down by TIFF this year. As the days and screenings went on, I looked more and more for films of real hunger whose drive would make up for the weakness of the films that came before. This is why no matter how impressive an achievement Roma is—and indeed it is tremendously impressive, as it very well intends—from the 2018 festival the film that I have no doubt will stick with me the longest will be What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?. Unlike so many films presented at the festival—or indeed in cinemas in general—it insisted not upon its own importance, but rather upon its necessity of being.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me and others. Until next year, then, and hopefully before that a better tomorrow.