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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Roma-Bravo connection

An image from Alfonso Cuaron's Netflix film Roma

It’s in black and white; it’s in Spanish and indigenous languages, with subtitles; it takes place in early 1970s Mexico; and it is being distributed by Netflix. Yet Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical Roma sits atop many critics’ lists of the best films of 2018 and, improbably but also certainly, it will be a serious contender at next year’s Oscars.

Threshold by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
My friend Dick, who saw the film at home, urged me to catch Roma on the big screen if I could – in order to better experience its outstanding cinematography – and I am passing that advice on to you. In my case, I didn’t really have a choice, as I don’t subscribe to Netflix or any other media service (not even cable TV), so I was especially pleasantly surprised to learn that I could go to the Spectrum in Albany and see it there (it's also showing at Images Cinema in Williamstown, Mass.).

The Daydream by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Though I have avoided reading any reviews of Roma until after I post this commentary, there’s no doubt it has been extensively covered in all the publications that offer such content, so I won’t try to add to those assessments here. Rather, I wish to share my perception of the connection between the work of the great 20th-century Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and the imagery seen throughout Cuaron’s movie.

Striking Worker Assassinated by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
It can’t be coincidence – Cuaron (who did his own cinematography on this project) clearly was emulating Bravo’s content and style. And, why not? The film takes place in Mexico City (with a few short side trips into the countryside), where Bravo plied his trade for a remarkably long time (he was active until his death at age 100 in 2002), and where he made pictures of everyday life with a surreal twist, a description that could apply to Roma as well.

Sparrow, Light by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
From the floor-washing shots that open the film to the nearly endless still held under its closing credits, and throughout the rest of Roma, I was reminded again and again of images from the Bravo catalog. I present some of those images here as examples for those who’ve seen the movie (or plan to see it); I think you’ll agree that there’s a strong relationship.

title unknown by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
So, why should we care? Well, for one thing, Bravo deserves to be better known. If the attention this film is getting could also expand his following, that would be good for his legacy and for the new fans he will acquire. Admittedly, I have a bias (don’t I always?) – when I began making black-and-white photographs in 1972, Bravo’s work in photo books was among my earliest influences. And it nicely stands the test of time, as Cuaron’s film underscores.

Dog Number 20 by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
But there’s more to all this than nostalgia for a simpler time. Indeed, Roma describes a time that was brutally complex. But perhaps it takes a simpler medium – slowly moving black-and-white – to help us understand the meaning of that time, and ours. I thank Cuaron for making this film, though it is painfully sad; and I thank him for revering and re-creating the subtly powerful style of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of the greatest photographers ever.

The Eclipse by Manuel Alvarez Bravo


Héctor Méndez Caratini said...

You seem to have incorrectly titled one of Manuel Álvarez Bravo's signature photographs -La buena fama durmiendo / Good Reputation Sleeping, 1939. The correct title to the one you have mislabeled should be: Gorrión, Claro / Sparrow, Light, 1938.

Héctor Méndez Caratini

david brickman said...

THANK YOU, Hector, I will correct it.
Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Clipping Path said...

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