Alfonso Cuaron is always a director whom I’ve admired from afar whether it be Harry Potter or Gravity (2013), but I would stop short of saying I’ve felt a connection to any of his work. Not that it is not there, I simply have not been affected in a specific way.
Roma, right from the outset, is vastly different from those other titles. Here is a man who has carved out success for himself in Hollywood along with his fellow countrymen like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Still, by taking stock of his life, stepping back, and returning to his roots, instantly I have a more profound understanding and subsequent appreciation of Cuaron.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for monochrome and Roma is by far the most gorgeous movie that I’ve seen from 2018 in this regard. Also, the world being documented intrigues me. The only film I recollect existing in a comparable space is Machuca (2004) and even that story was very pointed in putting the social and racial elements front and center.
Roma somehow manages to work wonders by bringing those normally existing outiside of the spotlight into the forefront, while nudging usual focal points to the periphery and yet they are no less a part of this world. It’s a deeply admirable endeavor to try and pull off and it generally succeeds.
Because this is a story of a family living in the Mexican quarter of Roma but if it is about children, a grandmother; a husband and wife, then it is more specifically about their in-house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s made plain she is the glue to hold everything together in this story and within this splintering family.
The camera itself follows suit, with Cuaron making a concerted effort to keep his visions broad and encompassing (He served as cinematographer as well as director and screenwriter). We still know we’re being guided albeit by someone coaxing us to observe and take in scenes at a certain distance. It’s the overall impressions and a sense of the gestalt that is more important than mercilessly driving our focus. Soft pans at times turning a full 360 degrees make all the space fair game. I’m not always a fan but they generally work.
The freedom is exhilarating and at the same time pensive because it allows space to really sit back and relish scenes unfolding at their own pace. I can’t help but be reminded of Tati’s Playtime (1967) where so many things might be going on in the frame and you are given license to enjoy all or none of them at any given time.
Beyond these shots, the most gratifying are the tracking ones moving right to left along street corners. Maybe it’s a pair of young women running to their favorite lunch shop to get a torta for or little kids scampering ahead to get to the movie theater to see the new movie Marooned (a Gravity inspiration perhaps). It’s not simply a technical appeal but a complete immersion in the landscape that we can appreciate.
But the drama is also evident, especially following a tumultuous one-two punch instigated by rioting and blood in the streets, an outcome of the notorious Corpus Christi Massacre. The historical moment gets personal and the sheer volatility of it all feels palpable. I cannot help but remember the rumblings of unrest and chaos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. For Mexico’s people, it was far more than a pair of black power salutes.
This is augmented by a moment that proves equally bleak. It feels like a dream out of 8 1/2 (1963). Stuck in a traffic jam — not moving an inch — except this is very real and disconcerting. There are some real issues with not only the social and economic unrest but the very infrastructure of the nation.
Cleo is on the verge of pregnancy and yet they are not moving anywhere. The hospital seems desperately out of reach. When they do finally arrive it too is full of tumult. Pulling strings, they manage to get Cleo to the doctor. However, nothing can prepare us for the devastating drama with the birth of Cleo’s child.
The news finally drops that father is not gone away in Canada. He’s simply not coming back. In the aftermath of all this excitement and the family vacation, life settles into a new equilibrium. Cleo tries to get over her heartbreak as the family accepts that dad is not coming back and they must be brave and move forward with life.
These encompass many of the moments already mentioned but it seems just as necessary to mention hail storms, barking dogs, hanging up the washing, nights in front of the television, and the complete decimation of automobiles simply in an attempt to park them in the narrow family garage.
A story like this thrives on these moments just as much as the overt drama because Cuaron has pulled from his own memories — the personal recollections of his childhood — and so when we see these very mundane sequences there is an appreciation for the details.
The only caveat that should come with Roma is the necessity to be aware of the social structure in place within the context of our story. If we were taking an anthropology course we would probably call it hegemony. Because our central family is part of the middle class, the social elite, and their background shows connections to higher education and the world at large.
The first tip-off Cleo is different is simply how she looks and her occupation as the family maid. Even the fact she speaks both Spanish and her indigenous Mixtec. These are elements we would do well not to gloss over.
Then, we see the community she was raised in and it becomes obvious the poverty present. Everyone does not live like her employers because they are part of the privileged few who can manage with multiple cars, many vacations, a fridge full of Twinkies, and money for frequent trips to the movies.
Again, these stark contrasts cannot be taken for granted. We have this strange process of dealing with these complex relationships deeply rooted in the country itself. Cuaron is attempting to acknowledge an unsung hero in his life while coming to terms with his own past. It’s imperfect but I have difficulty finding fault in it because this is essentially his existence with the curtains pulled back.
It is not for me to pass judgment on the merit of his life or his upbringing. What I can hold onto and feel drawn to are the moments of pain and suffering that feel human. We have instances of quiet strength and dignity, affection and bravery. Cleo is a beautiful figure. That doesn’t make her station in life right or the world around her okay but she gleams with something powerful. There are deep reservoirs of emotion evident here but they are not of the conventional sort.
In my estimation, pulchritude will always hold precedence over ugliness. It’s not about being complacent or ignorant towards the dark tendencies of this world but it hinges on a resolute hopefulness. Roma is a meaningful ode even as it reminds us both the past and our current reality are deeply flawed.