Roma is a black and white memory belonging to the distinguished writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood. It is set in the Mexico City of the tumultuous 1970s. He directs, writes and is also behind the camera framing every shot. There are no studio sets. Everything is shot on location, almost all the actors are people plucked from the location, stall holders, nurses, doctors, street kids. With those credentials the film qualifies as an original work of a genuine auteur.
Does it measure up to a cinematic work of art? It does, and ten times over. It has all the power of the great work of neo-realists and a thousand times the budget.
I came to this film late in the day. I picked it up on a big television courtesy of its financier, Netflix. On the positive side this is a good way of watching a film crammed with insight into human aspiration and behaviour. After a single viewing you can run it a second time to stop and start it in order to contemplate the moments of revelation.
On the other hand, unlike De Sica’s much earlier work Bicycle Thieves (1948), set in Rome at the end of the Second World War, shot on 16mm format with a begged and borrowed budget and also an all-amateur cast, Roma is a widescreen film shot on 35mm. Roma needs a cinema screen to encompass you until you feel part of the furniture for this is a life-enhancing story. It is both personal to Cuarón and universal in application.
You have to sit with it and not let your concentration wander. This has all the detail of a novel but in photographic images and not prose. Like the debut masterwork of Bengali’s great filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali (1955), a similar lengthy film of quiet domesticity, it takes time to unfold. The cynical will wonder where the tension lies, if drama will make an appearance. Unless you have a brick for a heart, you soon identify with the main protagonist, a house maid and child minder.
I’ve always been suspicious of contemporary filmmakers that choose black and white to tell a story, a probable sign of the cold stylist rather than a movie maker. For one thing, this story is to a great extent about poverty, poverty at the service of the wealthy and the privileged. Images can be made to look very seductive, and visual seduction can take your mind off content. However, while the overall effect is often visual poetry, Cuarón makes sure what we see is defiled by the smell of life from the viewpoint of the poor.
Roma focuses on the life of a comfortable upper-middle class family, living between 1970 and 1971 in Mexico city, a few years of their existence encompassed by the panorama of changes that Mexican society experienced, particularly the outbreaks of violence that made life in Mexico complicated, fraught with jeopardy.
We see and hear it through the eyes and ears of one of the hardworking maids of this family, Cleo, the centre of the story brought to life by an entrancing, wholly open, honest interpretation by a newcomer to acting, Yalitza Aparicio.
Wondrously, Aparicio is from a rural area, in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico, much like her character in Roma. Yalitza had been studying to be a teacher, just graduated when the acting opportunity arose and her sister told her to chance her hand as a summer job. She had no acting experience at all when she was given the role.
Anyhow, to the film: Cleo is more than a maid, she is part of the family, but one step removed from the family’s private moments. She knows her place. She is an employee. She may go on trips with the family to the shops and to the beach, and she loves the children as if her own, but she also gets rebuked for leaving a light on too late at night wasting electricity.
Cleo is a quiet spoken young woman you know in time will look old beyond her years because of the daily tasks she must do, and repeat day in, day out. She is eager to do a good job, to please, always to be nearby when called upon to answer the main door, get a class of water when nursing the child with a coughing fit, or sweep up dog dirt from the family’s pets. She’s learned to stay out of the way when controversy arrives within the family, especially with the distant, often-absent patriarch.
Nothing in life is guaranteed to exist for long, certainly not happiness. Life changes for Cleo after an affair with a cousin of her friend’s boyfriend results in an expected pregnancy – the one predictable aspect, true to the times in which the film is set. Cleo’s employers offer to help their favorite servant with the pregnancy, taking her to the doctor and supporting her with whatever she needs. Of course, that isn’t enough. Her circumstances begin to unravel inexorably as she tries to struggle with unplanned motherhood while the existence of the family she works for falls apart at the same time.
Through her actions, her naivety, we see how her everyday existence is shaped and formed. In the process of observation we learn something of Mexico at that time, and we see how the family she works for survives, though the two classes are as far apart as one can imagine. We see, as Cleo does, how her perception undergoes changes until she understands the world will not stop for her, or indeed, for any of the people she knows. Above all, we see how two women can support each other during the worst of tragedy.
As the fascinating story progresses, the character of Señora Sofía, (Marina de Tavira – one of the few professional actresses in the film) the matriarch of the family, grows too. Sofía is mother to four children who just about copes with her domestic wife duties so long as she has Cleo to do the washing and cleaning and collect the children from school. Full of the small talk of the bourgeoisie, there is a loneliness about her. Her husband is always travelling, Sofía there when he returns.
By the quarter point into this tale of domesticity we start to see we are watching a film about women whose lives are almost completely moulded by men. I found gratifying not to be watching a crass, artificially constructed Hollywood chick flick full of wise cracks extolling a ‘need’ for a man, but a film about real women and their need for affection and love.
Cuarón positions the camera as if it were an impartial observer, almost like a security camera that moves in a linear fashion, as does the story with a rhythmic movement in which it does not matter that the characters leave the plane momentarily and reappear to move across our gaze in the opposite direction. The images and the subdued emotions roll past dreamlike but in real time, each one as if an animated photograph.
I half-knew what to expect because it had already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Roma is nominated for 10 Oscars. I expect it to win many of them. In 24 hours I’ll be in a position to amend this paragraph with the actual awards written into movie history. [It won as it should have won, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. List added 25.02.19.]
To finish this review, Cuarón himself should explain what motivated him to tell the real incidents from his real maid’s life in his own childhood.
“There are periods in history that scar societies and moments in life that transform us as individuals. Time and space constrain us, but they also define who we are, creating inexplicable bonds with others that flow with us at the same time and through the same places. Roma is an attempt to capture the memory of events that I experienced almost fifty years ago. It is an exploration of Mexico’s social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven to this date and, above all, it’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”
Throughout Roma, Cuarón personal story uses his mastery of visual language to convey mood and character that burrows into our brain and captures our empathy. There is no film score, and yet we never miss it for Roma is aurally electric, every footfall, every click of a closing door, every child’s laughter, every sigh, largely because of the veracity of Cuarón’s attention to detail. We are witnessing the ghost of the present visiting the past.
Roma is the Spanish word for love, ‘amor’, spelled backwards. I loved every second of it.
- Star rating: 5 stars plus
- Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
- Director: Alfonso Cuarón
- Writer: Alfonso Cuarón
- Cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón
- Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?