By Subhash K. Jha
There’s no mistaking the fact that Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican film “Roma” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese “Shoplifters” are both great films. And they deserve to win the Oscar on Sunday for Best Foreign Film.
Both speak a universal language of the heart. They are both works that celebrate the joy of being part of a family and, in fact, they tell us that a family is not what you are born with but what you cultivate and nurture. In “Roma” the househelp Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in an upper-class Mexican household is more “family” to her employers than family can ever be.
Director Cuaron follows the ups and downs in the fortunes of Cleo’s employers’ lives, neither judging them for their shortcomings nor congratulating them for their triumphs. “Roma” simply moves on in susurrating rhythms that not only echo life, they also burnish those rhythms with intimations of eternity.
Such is the magic of great cinema. We get swept into drama effortlessly in both “Roma” and “Shoplifters” without understanding the spoken language. I firmly believe that in Great Cinema the language should be the least relevant component of communication.
In “Shoplifters”, signs, signals and echoes play a very important role in the overall impact that the film makes. Twenty-four hours after I saw this masterpiece, I am still thinking about the characters — those fringe people living at the edge of society in Tokyo, no different from Satyajit Ray’s famine-stricken bravehearts of Bengal in “Pather Panchali”.
There is a major difference between “Pather Panchali” and “Shoplifters”. In Ray’s film there is hardly any food. In “Shoplifters”, the family is constantly eating the fancy food that they steal from stores and devour as their own.
It’s an immoral way of life. But one that gives space above the stomach and below the brain for love and compassion. What really won me over in “Shoplifters” was the Shibata family’s celebration of its dysfunctional status without diminishing its tragic context of deprivation and poverty.
The Japanese family is ‘happy’ in a way that happiness can be obtained when one accepts doom as the ultimate culmination of the family journey into the vast open inviting spaces of the city, which becomes a space for a daring adventure for the family’s son and daughter.
The son, Shota, and the illegally adopted daughter, “Yuri”, in “Shoplifters” reminded me of Apu and Durga in “Pather Panchali”. The same innocence swathed in a wisdom that comes easily to those who learn about survival from the hard licks of life at a very young age.
As in “Pather Panchali”, there are no villains in “Shoplifters”, not even destiny, whose cruel verdicts seem to punch a hole in the family’s shared joy much too soon.
Unlike “Roma” where the director elects to leave the family with a non-tragic finale, the family in “Shoplifters” falls apart at the end. There is an unforgettable father-son sequence at the finale where the son asks his father some harsh questions about the parental bond. In an earlier scene on the beach (both “Roma” and “Shoplifters” have a crucial family-on-the-beach interlude), the father speaks to his son about puberty, breasts and arousal like an older buddy.
Apu, in “Pather Panchali” could have never shared these confidences with his father. In India, we are much too in awe of our parents to discuss bodily pleasures with them. Besides, Satyajit Ray was shy of physical intimacy and sex. “Shoplifters” holds nothing sacred and, therefore, hides nothing from its characters’ area of rumination. You can’t afford to be coy when you sleep in a kerchief-sized room with five other members of your family.
In “Roma” the family shares a lot of silences. In “Shoplifters”, they are constantly conversing and, of course, eating. Did your parents teach you it’s ill-mannered to talk while eating? Watch the family in “Shoplifters” talk while they eat, run, steal, sleep…They break many rules and they do it without a show of even an iota of bravado. These people need to bond constantly because time is running out on them. And they don’t need silences to remind them of their brittle lives.
I would go with the Oscar for “Shoplifters”. This family needs the endorsement much more than the family in “Roma”.