Film Review: Roma (2018), Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
This love letter of a film is the director’s tribute to his childhood, his family, and particularly to his adored and adoring nanny, Libo to whom he dedicates the film. It is a radical departure from all of his other films, in particular his most recent film, Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock lost in space, and had a $100 million budget. By contrast this film is almost hyper-real, cost one tenth of the former, and centers on the calmest on-screen character you are likely to see, played to perfection by a non-actor, Yalitza Aparicio as the Libo stand-in, Cleo, who seems to be the glue that holds the soon-to-be disrupted family together. This is Cuarón’s Proustian endeavor and is extremely personal.
The film opens in 1970 inside of a Mexico City home in the Colonia Roma district which is surrounded by a wall with a metal gate which opens to let the cars to park inside. A comfortable upper middle class home similar to the one in which the director grew up. The camera literally follows the housekeeper/nanny Cleo into the house, past the frisky guard dog and the many bird cages hung in the courtyard. Inside the house lives a family of four rambunctious children, ages 6 to 12, their mother Sofia, her mother Veronica, the kids’ father Antonio, and Adela, another maid who is also Cleo’s cousin. The immersion into the routine of the household is gradual as the camera glides around the home following the activities of Cleo. She is the most mobile member, as she does her housekeeping chores efficiently and conscientiously, as well as more intimate tasks such as putting the children to bed and waking them up with infinite sweetness, grace and tenderness. There is an obvious sense of strong mutual warmth and affection. We observe most of the activities from the point of view of Cleo.
Having established the rhythms of the household early on, and lulling us into complacency, Cuarón, employing the same serene detached style, begins to introduce the dramatic, alarming and dangerous incidents which follow and disrupt the orderly pace of life and significantly affect the characters. The departure of the father on a business trip turns out to be anything but. A fact that the wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavíra) tries to keep from the family as long as possible, while being in denial herself. The financial pressures brought on by the father’s abdication of responsibility bring tension into the atmosphere with acting out occurring on all sides. When Cleo’s very strange, martial arts-practicing boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerero) finds out she is pregnant, he bolts without a word of goodbye. As two scorned women, Sofia is supportive of Cleo, promises to take care of her and the baby, and keeps her in the house. Sofia, wisely realizes that Cleo is more needed now than ever by all of them.
Ironically, although Cleo now has her own emotional stress, she is still the calm at the center of the storm, even as she witnesses the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 which resulted in over 100 student demonstrators being shot by paramilitary forces, is confronted by her gun-wielding ex-boyfriend, and gives birth to a stillborn baby on the same day. If this sounds impossible to imagine, the use of extremely long takes of the action makes sense of the whole scenario and we believe it. There are some other challenging scenes which Cuarón, who also shot the film, pulls off masterfully, like a suspicious fire outside of a wealthy landowner’s home on New Year’s Eve, which forces the tipsy revelers in evening clothes to form a bucket brigade to throw absurdly small amounts of water on the flames. The scene of the near drowning of two of the kids caught in an ocean undertow being rescued by Cleo, who cannot swim, is a study in understatement.
That Cleo performs all of the roles required of the family without a glimmer of resentment, seems almost taken for granted. That is because there is a tacit understanding that she is practically a family member. An attitude of classism could be interpreted by some, and it occurred to me as well. But, truthfully, as an illiterate girl from a poor village, her opportunities are so limited that the case could be made that she has a comfortable place in a loving family who do not take advantage of her and treat her with respect. And she seems to have no inclination to even visit her village, much less nostalgia. If the film is to be believed, she is content. I believed it.
I emphatically recommend seeing this film in a theatre if humanly possible. Not because of extravagant special effects. But for opposite reasons. A small screen will not reveal the beauty ofthe luminous black and white cinematography which roams over and illuminates the tiny details of the quotidian life of its characters. Also the sound design ingeniously enhances the immersive experience by revealing the subtle ambient sounds outside of the frame, ie. caged bird songs, barking dogs, and street noises which one hears from speakers surrounding the audience. It is like sinking into a pond with the film flowing all around you. A unique and beautiful experience. It is made with loads of heart.
You can watch a trailer for the film here.