January 3, 2019 § Leave a comment
Roma’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, has described it as ‘a year in the life of a family and a country’ and so it is, but what he’s done with this framework is something formally and thematically more ambitious.
Cuarón acknowledges the autobiographical roots of the film. Roma is the district of Mexico City where he grew up, in the spacious modern house of a bourgeois family cosseted by the labour of servants. His central character is the nanny cum maid of all work, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), inspired by his own nanny, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. With affection and devotion Cleo looks after the family’s four children as well as doing housework and calmly containing the crisis of the parents’ marital breakup. In return she is loved but often bears the brunt of the mother’s angry unhappiness at her husband’s disappearance to live with another woman.
Class becomes immediately apparent as racial hierarchy: Cleo is a dark-skinned india from Oaxaca who speaks the indigenous language with her friend Adela, the cook, while speaking Spanish to her employers, their children and their dog, Borras (subtitling indicates which). There are many dogs in the film, guard dogs or hunting dogs treated by their owners with a carelessness bordering on cruelty, rather as they take their servants for granted. Borras is confined mainly to the building’s roofless tiled entrance, where cars are narrowly parked. In the film’s opening shot a murky puddle of water fills the screen. Someone or something is sweeping it, clearing it, until it suddenly reflects the sky and a plane far above. The shot opens out to show us Cleo with a broom; later, when we see her perform the same chore we realise she’s repeatedly cleaning up dog mess.
Throughout, the camera is either observing Cleo or taking her perspective as she observes others. We wait some time before we are allowed her face in close-up. First we watch her at work, with an attention to labour and its surroundings that’s reminiscent of Italian neorealism, all the more so because the film is in black and white, monochrome being more consonant with memory than colour. This is above all the monochrome of the Italians; Antonioni and, in particular, Fellini resonate. It’s sharp though sometimes greyish, sometimes harshly sunlit, yet, whatever the season, the light always feels muted – memory again, its distance and the distance of those movies that influence its feel and look. For the streets of the city instead there’s Hollywood widescreen, with virtuoso lateral tracking shots as Cleo walks quickly and purposefully across its intersecting bustle and traffic.
The camera is nearly always on the move, shifting angles, following the family up and down the stairs of the Mexico City house, panning around a vast room crowded with people and sofas at the country estate where they’ve gone with Cleo to spend Christmas, pausing to scan detail in smoky close-up: brimming ashtrays, glasses, sweet wrappers, comic strips (I spotted Nancy, which I instantly recalled from my childhood, but in colour). Sometimes it fastens on unlikely objects: the front of a car that’s struggling to fit into that narrow entrance, driven by the shadowy father who is soon to vanish.
In its search for memory Roma is a very Proustian film, and just as Proust’s great work becomes more and more surreal as it progresses to its end, so in Roma there are times when memory melts into dream-like hallucination, notably at that country retreat. We watch the bourgeoisie on a little spree of animal-killing sport on the bank of a river or lake. We don’t actually see what they’re shooting at, just their enthusiasm for the opportunity, and in which they encourage the children. The scene becomes even more grotesque when a forest fire breaks out in the night and the party continues in its midst. Luis Buñuel made 20 films in Mexico over 15 years, so Cuarón might have had him in mind here, consciously or otherwise.
The year encompassed by the film includes Cleo’s pregnancy and the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, when a student demonstration was attacked by state-sponsored paramilitaries who killed 120 people. These events form part of Roma’s narrative, in a way that brings those vicious killings frighteningly close. There’s an undercurrent of violence evident not only within the fractured family and fights between two of the boys, but in the nature of the society and the city, its machismo and the lurking contempt for women made plain by Cleo’s boyfriend. But villainy or heroism isn’t cut and dried. We catch sight of the children’s father again in the hospital – a decent, dutiful doctor.
Roma is imbued with love for the cinema and it sets out to capture the speed and density of the world as immersive experience, layered both in image and in sound: conversations half heard, a small earthquake, music on the street, the maternity ward where the camera clings to a traumatised Cleo about to give birth and where we hear women’s screams of pain all around. There’s the everyday and there are strangenesses: the youngest of the children chatters about the life he had before he was born. The long takes and frequently deployed deep focus cram the screen with movement and objects; sound and image, light and shadow together create an uncanny sense of being present. The senses are enveloped by the thunderous waves at Vera Cruz that threaten Cleo and the children, and us too, it feels. We are in that water and its danger, one of several highly charged moments.
It’s the stunning beauty of the mise en scène that conjoins the epic and the intimate in this film, and it’s as much a source of its life and emotional power as the skills and direction of its actors.
Cleo does not articulate herself in words, she is still and self-contained until a final cathartic release of feeling. But all along we see her strength and courage as well as her socially-decreed entrapment.
Two days before seeing Roma I saw Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters. They are very different but have some similarities. Both are about the family as connection other than the ties of blood. In Roma Cleo’s familial status goes unacknowledged, yet the children and their mother have an intense emotional dependence on her as well as a practical need. The family of marginal workers and petty thieves in Shoplifters wills itself together for love and mutual support through unorthodox forms of adoption. Shoplifters is an oblique portrait of the gig economy and its consequences in contemporary Japan, Roma shows us a specific cultural and political moment in Mexico’s history, a moment of land grabs by the powerful as well as brutal state repression in the city.