Sometimes you fall in love with a film so much, that you simply want to say thank you to the film-makers. Thank you David Lowery, and thank you Alfonso Cuaron, you are two of my favourite directors working and your efforts this year are beautiful. I have been seduced by their latest films The Old Man and The Gun and Roma, swept off my feet, blushing red in my cheeks as I accept their proposal. It’s a proposal to feel something, two very different, but often similar feelings. Lowery with pure happiness and Cuaron with pure despair. Films are my passion because they effect me in a profound way, and perhaps it’s because I can’t get a grasp on true reality, as I’m always the weakest in the cinema, or in the case of Roma, the weakest in my bedroom. I cry at any slight emotion in a moving image, and when a film reaches peak form, my body shudders. I’m touched like an ecstasy high, near death, new years kiss force of nature, and I’m thankful to the film-makers for when that happens.
If you are not familiar with David Lowery, you will be soon. He’s only 37 and got a few lovely films behind him, including one transcendent experience: A Ghost Story. A film about loss, grief, relationships and death, it’s a haunting piece of work, where it takes only a still from the movie to shatter me. This is where Lowery reached peak artistry, and so will forever be a great auteur in my eyes, but his latest film has touched a new nerve. The Old Man and The Gun stars Robert Redford, in reportedly his final film, as career criminal Forrest Tucker – a man who can’t help but rob banks, where ‘it’s not making a living, it’s just living’. He does it in the most charming way, where he dresses smart, walks casually up to the teller, smiles, and says that he has a gun and to put the money into a bag, then he walks out. Gentle police detective John Hunt, Casey Affleck, begins to notice Tucker’s antics as he goes from town to town, so he makes it his mission to catch him. I had a big grin on my face from start to finish during this film. Redford, of course, is the perfect screen presence, with his wry smile and the twinkle in his voice. His performance is joyous, whether this is his last film or not, but knowing that gives his character a melancholic edge. In the opening moments he meets Jewel, a widower played by Sissy Spacek, and their connection remains sweet throughout the film. Their relationship is endearing, tentative, and wonderfully hopeful. Lowery deals with this with such softness, and understands the language of an instant, easy friendship. The camera stays close and the shots cut are together delicately, with the sense that you could be sat at the table with the characters, but they wouldn’t notice that you was there.
I’m a Casey Affleck fan, he’s repented for his sins and his acting mesmerises me. When he is introduced into the film, his face is overflowing with a strange bored sadness, and the amount of empathy he is showing is endless. We are quickly friends with him, just as we are with the Redford character. When the two of them clash during the film, all I wanted was the two of them to become friends, and actually they don’t really clash. That is where film becomes completely likeable, because there is no unneeded conflict, no pointless obstacle to get over (even when someone gets shot, it’s brushed passed and solved quickly). Redford’s character is happy-go-lucky and geared totally in the present, and hopeful of the future. Affleck’s character is determined, but aware that once he has caught Forrest Tucker, he will be without a purpose once again. It’s sublime film-making, capturing instances of thrills and human connection, using absorbing actors to keep your attention. Late on in the film, it goes through Tucker’s several successful escape attempts from prison, and Lowery cheekily uses a shot of Redford from an earlier film. It was incredibly moving, seeing a younger version of him, and with his back catalogue including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, there is an added weight to the film. Lowery’s respect for story and characters made it a great film, and his compassion within the frames caused me to adore every second of it.
SPOILERS! And it matters, it really matters…
Happiness over, now onto despair, with Roma. However despair does not sit alone in the film, and it is not a depressing runtime, as mixed with it is humour and affection, pulled together with astonishing technique. Cuaron, at this point, is a master of his craft. Y Tu Mama Tambien is amorous, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best franchise movie ever made and Children of Men sits on a pedestal of modern cinema. With Roma he is returning to his roots, almost literally, telling the tale of a middle class Mexican family in the early 1970’s, as they go through a family change. In the middle is their maid Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio, who is going through her own troubles, whilst looking after the house and the children. To say I was excited to see this film would be an understatement, I feel like I’ve been waiting for years to see this film, and despite all the controversy over a cinema versus Netflix release, I would have watched it on my phone if I had to. In the end, I watched the film on my laptop, but the visuals still impressed me. And oh my gosh are the visuals impressing – every scene is packed with life, real life moving along behind the main characters. The choice to shoot the film in black and white leads to engrossing imagery, that is both gorgeous and impactful, due to its starkness. There is a Fellini 8 ½ kind of depth to the shots, where the field of view is never ending but it definitely has Cuaron’s languid, lucid stamp on it too. He stunningly positions each moment in a dream state, whilst completely grounding the content with tangible meaning. This tangibility comes from the sound design, which is remarkable, even little noises like the folding of clothes gets you right in the soul.
The film is slow paced and building, and this is where Cuaron shines. He deceives us for most of the film with this portrait of privileged Mexican life, where the setting is an ambient bystander. Through these subtleties, and tentative interactions we are fooled by, and embraced by the world Cuaron presents, then he amazes us. There is a scene in the film where Cleo is taken to a furniture store by the family Grandmother to pick out a cot for the baby she’s expecting. A student riot is happening outside, and from the window of the store we see it explode, occurring in real time. It’s an unbelievable shot, that emits intense panic and fear because of the monotonous that has come before. I felt my bones shake, my heart stop, my blood curdle, and tears ran down my face. I’m probably a bit pathetic but I was floored by Cuaron’s skill and the emotion he cut out of this scene. And it doesn’t stop there, because this is when the despair comes in. This event, and what follows, results in Cleo losing her baby. It’s born dead, and that is an inherently sad thing, but the way Cuaron presents it makes it much harsher. He does not shy away from anything, and we see a frontally deceased baby, and that created honest despair inside me. My tears were suddenly not from raw, powerful film-making, and were from absolute anguish.
I’m still not sure how interesting gushing about clearly brilliant films is. I’m trying to get people to see these films, and have a similar reaction to them. One of the downsides of having such visceral connections to film is that it can often be a lonely thing, where I’m wiping away my tears surrounded by blank faces, so it’s nice when I can share the feeling with someone. I’m looking forward to watching The Old Man and The Gun with my parents, especially my dad, because it’s a film almost from an earlier generation, that can bring joy to anyone. Unfortunately Roma is a tougher sell – foreign language, black and white, meandering pace, but everyone should give it a go, and be patient with it. It’s on Netflix so there’s nothing stopping you!
(Quick note: Roma could be a masterpiece, and much more could be written on it)