Alfonso Cuarón is one of the few directors working who knows how to imbue genuine magic into his films. His latest magical journey is Roma, a semi-autobiographical picture about Cuarón’s childhood. Unlike most autobiographical films, Cuarón is not the feature character. Instead, he centers the women who shaped his childhood. His mother who is going through a difficult separation and his live-in nanny whose first love has impregnated her and left her high and dry.
From the first shot, it is clear that Roma will be an exceptional film. The opening credits play over a close-up of a tiled driveway. It is simple, but everything in Roma is a symbol for something else. Even the tiles. For fans of early cinema, the opening credits harken back to an era of film where an image of a pink silk background or a field of lilies, held for several minutes, was allowed to slowly transport the viewer to a new world.
Cuarón certainly does travel back in time. The entire film is shot in stunning black and white. During his Q and A at the North American premiere of Roma, during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Cuarón and Producer Gabriela Rodriguez recalled the lengths the crew went through to accurately recreate each location in the film. Cuarón, who also shot the film himself, would only look at location scout images that were filmed in black and white. They tracked down retired street vendors from the 1970s so extras in the background would sound authentic. Even soundscapes of beaches and farm towns were endlessly researched.
This is particularly impressive taking into account that only Cuarón had a script. Producers, actors, and crew were given brief descriptions before filming each scene. This choice helps bring a lived-in aesthetic to the cast. The children’s fights instantly transported me back to arguing with my brother in our pre-teen years. Fighting over toys and calling one another names, the children are slowly exhibiting all the anxieties of a broken home. Those fights are taking their toll on everyone involved.
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a knockout as Cleo. She has no training as an actress but she is viscerally present. Cleo is resigned to her station in life. In one of the opening scenes, she sings about how her true love will never reciprocate her feelings because she was born poor. But she does this with a smile, swaying a bit as she hangs the laundry. This is how she navigates the world. She has no desire to climb higher, she genuinely loves working for this family. She isn’t close to her blood family. Her mother calls, but she never makes it back home to visit her. Cleo’s work is her life.
She quietly moves about the stately home picking up dog shit, serving dinner, and sweetly singing the children to sleep. As an American, this is very foreign to me. Maids are reserved for the elite with a lot of money. They are not family. Maids are employees. Even au-pairs leave when the children can begin to take care of themselves. It seems Cleo has a lifetime appointment. She is in control. She can come and go as she pleases, she can quit. But she can’t keep the light on in her apartment after the family has gone to bed.
Roma seems to be in conflict with her role. There is clearly a class separation here. Cleo is indigenous and the family has white features and light skin. She sits with the family as they watch TV, but on a pillow on the floor. Everyone else sits on a couch or chair. Just as she has sat down, Ms. Sofía asked her to fix a cup of tea. The unclear line of family or employee makes me as Black woman feel very uncomfortable. A good friend, who is a native Colombian, is confused by my take. “Everyone has a maid where I’m from,” he once explained to me. “The maids have maids.”
I own up to the fact that I may be incredibly ignorant about the dynamics at play. But I also can’t shake the fact that this film is, at its core, a child’s memory of events. Mexico in 1970 is a tumultuous place. The government is stealing land from the indigenous peoples and they’ve begun to fight back. Assassinations take place in the middle of the day on crowded streets and land is set ablaze in retaliation. But, Cuarón often chooses not to show adult reactions to these tragedies.
For example, at one point Cleo confronts the father of her child. He threatens her violently. Cuarón places the camera behind Cleo focusing on Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero.) Irate, Fermin runs away. The camera lingers as he disappears, but we don’t see Cleo’s face again. Leaving the audience to figure out her reaction to the most direct conflict she had faced so far.
If one of the children had been the point of view of the film this would make sense. Children can only see part of the picture in an adult’s world. But Cleo is the point of view and she seems to have no opinions on the government takeover of land or what her life might be like in an equal world. You can feel Cuarón reaching to understand these women as they really are, but there’s a separation of his sex, of his age, of his cultural background that doesn’t quite close the gap.
Roma is about the downfall of a civilization. Every moment of happiness these women try to find is marred by someone succeeding where they failed, or death. Yet, like all women, they persist. With four children looking to them for guidance and support they don’t have another option. Neither woman bothers to seek another option. Cuarón, in his expert hands, drives tensions to a near breaking point. At the climax of the film, I found myself asking seriously how much more this poor woman was expected to endure.
Certainly, Roma is worth the price of a ticket. Executed to near perfection, this movie serves as a nostalgic time capsule of Mexico in the early ’70s. Every performance is alive and intriguing. Though not my favorite film at the festival, I will certainly revisit Roma and the family that was created within its timeframe again and again.
Header Image Source: Netflix