Feb 072019

Roma is beautiful and heartfelt. I enjoyed it a lot. Like good art often does, it made me want to make something of my own.

Roma is also a film made by someone steeped in a certain history of European art cinema. Rossellini and Fellini are the principle touchstones but there are others. What I can’t sort out is what purpose these touchstones serve. Citationality and influence are fundamental to art but here it’s unclear to me whether the film imagines a viewership that recognizes the citations and thinks through them intertextualy or whether it it includes them simply as signs in a performance of “quality” within a new mass distribution system.

For me, the references too often felt like winks or like a cribbed aesthetic. Neither are necessarily faults: winks are fun and the working within an established aesthetic—especially one this gorgeous—can be admirable. But I kept wondering what the references meant rather than what they pointed to or looked like. Roma—even the name is a citation—is not Nights of Caberia or Journey to Italy. It’s something else. It’s somewhere else. And I keep wondering if the Neo-realist intertext says anything about these characters and their stories or whether instead it simply marks them as “legitimate” by announcing that “these stories, these characters, this place are as serious and valuable as those stories, those characters, that place.”

I would like to see more films with the depth and beauty of Roma. As much as I love sci-fi, fantasy, the Marvel and DC behemoths, the thrillers and action-adventures, there’s a mammoth absence in the contemporary cinema. What I love and what I miss are those dramatic films that run the gambit from the earnest mid-budget quality films of studio subsidiaries to the small, sometimes cheeky sometimes ambitious festival independents of auteurs both new and established.

Roma offers me that kind of film and I really love it. Yet it also has the feel of a floor sample designed to showcase what streaming as a distribution and funding model might make possible for filmmakers. I’m not sure I buy what it’s selling in this regard (despite wanting to) but the fact that I perceive the sell so clearly and can see that sales pitch as the object of the intertextual references gives me pause.

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