I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book over the weekend as part of my usual Dec-Jan run through of award contenders. I enjoyed both tremendously and was so thrilled when they scored big wins at the Golden Globes a few hours later!
Roma’s win for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language was the closest thing to a sure bet in this category, although Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters was an early favourite. But the win for Best Director to Alfonso Cuaron was unexpected, as many people expected that go to Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born.
Green Book on the other hand was a bigger surprise with three wins. The least surprising one was for Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor and indeed, I think he’ll be the favourite to pick up his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a few weeks’ time. The win for Best Screenplay against the likes of Roma, Vice, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk was probably a close-run result, as it could just as easily have been any of the other four films. But I think it’s the win for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy that no one saw coming, as Adam McKay’s Vice was considered the front-runner. In retrospect, this win is a testament to how Green Book struck the perfect balance between being an accessible, entertaining movie, but also shone a light on the significant historical issue of race that continues to be unresolved even today.
Let’s look at each of the films in a bit more detail.
Roma is the story of one year in the life of an upper middle class Mexican family living in the suburb of Colonia Roma in Mexico City in 1970/71, told from the perspective of their live-in housekeeper Cleo. Roma has the look of a Kurosawa film – it’s shot in B&W in deep focus, which creates a flattened look with foreground and background elements in focus all the time; as a result, even extras in the background have to be ‘in character’, because the viewer can see everything on the screen clearly (think about all those village scenes in Seven Samurai). This movie is filled with memorable shots and sequences which I am sure I will re-watch again and again. Some are quietly humorous (the ongoing challenge of parking the Ford Galaxy in the driveway, the ridiculous martial arts antics of Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin), some are unbearably intense (the Corpus Christi riots and the subsequent hospital scene) and some are incredibly heartwarming (Sofia’s unconditional acceptance of Cleo’s ‘situation’, grandma Teresa’s distress on the way to the hospital, the beach scene at the end). All of this is set up in the first half hour with mundane family scenes that any of us can relate to, which then makes the subsequent events even more impactful. There are wonderful cinematic touches throughout the film that are rewarding for the observant viewer – the airplanes that bookend the movie (and particularly in the opening scene), the human cannonball, the clip from Marooned as an signpost to Cuaron’s previous movie Gravity, Cleo being able to do what none of the other martial arts students can, the fire on New Year’s eve, etc. The power of these images is so compelling that one almost doesn’t realize that the film has no musical score. It’s a real pity that Roma is not available in cinemas because that’s where one could really appreciate the visual beauty of the movie. I am not sure how many people so far bothered to watch this low-key B&W Spanish language film on Netflix, but I do hope audiences will discover and enjoy this gem for years to come.
Green Book tells the real-life story of a 1960’s musical tour of the Deep South by classical and jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley, accompanied by an Italian-American named Frank Vallelonga, who served as Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. Green Book is a crowd-pleasing film, which upon premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival got a lot of positive buzz (and inevitable, though superficial comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy). It then quickly spiraled into unnecessary controversy over a well-meaning but racially inappropriate comment made by co-star Viggo Mortensen (for which he immediately apologized) and also criticism that the film wasn’t “woke” enough to be a truly meaningful exploration of race issues in the 1960s. This is something I just don’t understand or agree with; I feel that in recent years, American critics and social commentators have a bias against ‘feel-good’ movies and take a position that meaningful messages can only be delivered via edgy or angsty movies. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that Green Book has done a great job of being a crowd-pleaser as well as a ‘movie with a message’. It draws its energy almost entirely from the chemistry between co-stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, both of whose works I’ve really enjoyed watching in the past few years. Mortensen is surely among the most under-rated and versatile leading men in Hollywood, having played King Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a Spanish musketeer in Captain Alatriste, Austrian psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, a Danish adventurer in Jauja, a Russian mobster in Easter Promises and now an Italian-American night club bouncer in Green Book. How amazing also that Peter Farrelly, one half of the duo that brought us low brow comedies like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and The Three Stooges should direct such a genuinely heartwarming and thoughtful film!
In the ultimate analysis, Green Book is a film with a message, but told with a light touch. Roma on the other hand, is about everyday life in an upper middle class family, but tells a universal story about the human condition – particularly how love can help overcome loneliness and pain. Both were deserving winners at the Golden Globes and I hope their run continues through the awards season into Oscars night on 25th February.