The unequal but loving relationships in Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s film set amid the political turmoil of 1970s Mexico, deliver some of the most powerful scenes in recent cinema.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma begins with a shot of tiles being splashed with water. In luminous black and white, the film’s opening titles appear over the tidal rush of soapy water. At one point, we see the reflection of a plane in the sky above, an image that will be echoed in the film’s final moments. And so, with Roma also photographed by the acclaimed director, Cuarón’s brilliant eye for framing is evident from the very outset. Though admiring of the grace of his composition, there was a part of me resisting this almost too aestheticised opening. Set in Mexico City in 1971, in the Colonia Roma district that lends the film its title, and based on autobiographical recollections, I wondered whether the chiaroscuro cinematography and the measured, almost stately unfolding of subsequent scenes indicated we were about to endure a film of lugubrious nostalgia.
There was no need to worry. One of the great strengths of Roma is that Cuarón is prepared to interrogate his own relationship to the story he is telling. Very quickly, the film’s formal restraint came to make sense. It is not until the opening credits finish and the camera pans that we realise the tiles are part of a villa’s courtyard, which one of the house’s maids, Cleo, has been busy washing and sweeping. This is a filmic strategy Cuarón will use throughout to great effect. We move from close-up to long shot, or from a close-up to a long-held tracking shot, and what has seemed to be in the margins of the frame imbues the story and the actions of the characters with greater significance. Roma’s astonishing opening scenes, which find beauty in the most quotidian of experiences – doing the laundry, children preparing for school, the making of breakfasts – also introduce us to one of the film’s major characters, the house itself. The beautiful rooms for the owners, and the cramped quarters of the staff. The house is a place where the occupants believe themselves safe from the political and social transformations that are taking place on the streets outside. This proves to be a chimera – the world always intrudes.
Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, a Mexican woman of Mixtec and Triqui heritage. This is her first acting role for film, and the performance is revelatory. Her very face and body lend the film authenticity. That, of course, is one of the longstanding legacies of cinematic neorealism – that through the casting of non-professional actors, filmmakers can come close to conveying the real lives and experiences of the working class and the dispossessed. Cuarón’s choice of casting Aparicio in the role is a homage to this tradition. But just as he is rigorous in exploiting the camera and the editing to alternate between distance and empathy for us as viewers, he also very consciously contrasts scenes of vivid realism with almost operatic tracking shots of the reconstructed Mexico City of the early 1970s. He never wants us to forget that this is his interpretation and his own recollection of history. Aparicio’s performance also operates in this way, moving from an almost total immersion in the physical details of her work as a maid, through subtle gestures and silent responses, conveying the enormous emotional and spiritual upheavals in her life. There are moments of real heartbreak in Roma and, for the most part, Cleo’s experiences are central to this unfolding of tragedy. Aparicio may not be a professional actor but her being able to carry the weight of the narrative, to move us so profoundly, must speak to an innate talent she has as an actor. She’s incandescent.
Cleo falls in love with a young man, Fermín, played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, only for him to abandon her when she falls pregnant. Her story is apposite to that of Sofía, her employer, who is played by Marina de Tavira. Sofía’s husband has left her but she keeps this secret from her four children, telling them that their father has temporarily gone to Québec for work. Both women’s lives and futures are dependent on the actions of men. But Sofía is a biochemist and bourgeois, while Cleo is from an indigenous peasant background. The opportunities for transformation in their individual lives are very different. De Tavira is also a terrific actor. One of the most complex and conflicting aspects of the film is how she alternates between real warmth and snappish imperiousness in her dealings with Cleo. We are never allowed to forget the economic exploitation at the heart of their relationship. Yet Cuarón isn’t interested in making simplistic political points. Sofía’s four children are vivid and integral to this purport; they each have real presence, and the love shared between them and Cleo is never in doubt. This contradiction is at the very heart of Roma – this awareness of the embedded inequality of the relationship between the maid and the family – and yet, for all of that, there is still love and fidelity possible in their bonds. I think all of Cuarón’s choices as a filmmaker and as a storyteller pivot around this understanding. Again, this underlies his strategic use of mise en scène to be at times realist and unflinching, and at other times detached and formalist. He demands we as an audience keep questioning what we are watching. I don’t think it is possible to overstate how impressive an achievement this is. Not a moment of Roma is marred by sentimentality.
The climax occurs when Cleo is taken to a furniture store by Sofía’s mother (Verónica García) to look at cribs. Outside the store windows we see radical students protesting. Suddenly, the Corpus Christi massacre erupts. On that day, June 10, 1971, a government-sponsored militia group killed more than 100 students. Fermín is part of the militia, Los Halcones, and after seeing him and witnessing an act of horrifying violence, Cleo’s waters break. In the next few scenes all that Cuarón has been attempting comes to vivid and powerful fruition. We are as shocked as Cleo is by the realisation that what we previously took to be Fermín’s almost juvenile engagement in martial arts is part of a terror campaign, the consequences of which still affect Mexican society. The separation between the domestic and the social is sundered, as is the division between the urban and the rural. This scene, and the ones that unfold straight afterwards with Sofía’s mother desperate to get Cleo to the hospital, are some of the most powerful I have seen in recent cinema. Cuarón reveals here that he is a filmmaker of formidable perception and talent. The personal tragic dimension is never sacrificed to the wider political context. What is equally remarkable is that the reverse doesn’t occur either.
I was convinced of Cuarón’s skill and intelligence as a director after seeing Y Tu Mamá También, and even more so after Children of Men. I did admire Gravity and enjoyed his contribution to the Harry Potter franchise (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but it is wonderful to see him return to a story and terrain that clearly mean something to him, that animate him above the technical and spectacular. The film at times consciously recalls the great work of European nouvelle vague and art cinema, but not surprisingly the references are to the early works of such filmmakers, the Bertolucci of Before the Revolution, the Truffaut of The 400 Blows or the Fellini of I Vitelloni. Though Cuarón is trained as a cinematographer, he has long collaborated with Emmanuel Lubezki, and Lubezki’s cinematography was integral to the visual splendour of the earlier films. But he was unavailable for the shoot of Roma, and Cuarón’s photographic work here is restrained and purposeful. At times it recalls the sombre austerity of Quattrocento religious art. There is an extended scene at a beach later in the film, composed and shot in one take, that is also the emotional climax of Aparicio’s performance. It has the stark mythic potency of a dream in its integration of memory, cinematic audacity and emotional storytelling. I doubt it would have been as powerful if it had been shot by anyone else. It is as if in returning to material and characters that are important to him, Cuarón has been revitalised as a filmmaker. Roma has the bravery and spirit of a young person’s work.
Based on Cuarón’s own memories of growing up bourgeois in Mexico City, the film is dedicated to the maid who helped raise him, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. In interviews, he has referred to Rodríguez as a “second mother”. There might be some readers who bristle at this, who doubt that a non-indigenous, wealthy man has the capabilities or even the moral right to tell this story. I believe every frame of Roma indicates how aware Cuarón is of the responsibility of this undertaking. The end returns us to the beginning, but our observation of Cleo now is not remote and at a distance. We now understand the immense sacrifice of her life. The distant plane that flies across the sky offers opportunities
and escapes that are cruelly not available to her.
I have seen Roma twice now, once at the cinema and once on the television screen. The film was financed by Netflix and it is largely distributed on that network. I’d urge readers to see it in a theatre, but I know that this isn’t possible for everyone. I don’t think the film’s power is diminished on the smaller screen. Roma won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Its production and reception suggest that filmmakers will increasingly be looking at streaming services to fund and distribute their work. There is nothing new in this. Film, video and TV have always been the most expensive of the popular arts, and film artists have always had to chase the money. Whether on the small or big screen, don’t miss Roma.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Nanny state". Subscribe here.