Movie Review: Drama – Roma (in Spanish and Mixtecan with English subtitles)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, and Verónica García
Singing children in raincoats play inside a roofless garage during a rainstorm, collecting tiny pellets of hail as they bounce off the floor around them like little explosions of fairy dust. A camera slowly pans across a child’s bedroom, its floors, walls, and shelves cluttered with toys, stuffed animals, and the assorted minutia of middle-class childhood, to the comforting sounds of their nanny singing them to sleep. Later, the same nanny lies on the roof of a building with another child in her care, the two pretend to be dead as the camera tilts upward revealing the blissful sunlight peeking through a curtain of laundry. But as the camera continues to rise, it reveals the third world blight of a dreary neighborhood, its rooftops similarly cluttered with clotheslines. In Roma, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisite and gripping black and white love letter to the people, time, and place of his childhood, these images play like memories, impossibly perfect in composition, sewn together in seamless low-key harmony, yet contrasted with the often stark neorealism of the outside world.
The nanny in question is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the dark-skinned Mixtecan maid for a light-skinned, upper middle-class family in the suburban Roma neighborhood of early 1970s Mexico City. The first image we see, in the film’s title sequence, is the tile floor of the enclosed garage that Cleo must wash regularly to remove the clinging dog shit that seems to be deposited there endlessly. As the titles play, we see first the tile and then, as a wave of soapy water is washed across the floor, the reflection of the sky, a small square in the middle of the puddle, its size restrained by the surrounding walls of the garage. As the waves of water continue to wash over, the reflection of an airplane flies across the square. This is, essentially, a metaphor for the box of Cleo’s life inside the family compound. It’s a limited world, one in which Cleo, at first, seems little more than a live-in servant, the one who minds the dog shit while the others trample over it without notice. Much of the film’s first act consists of shots of Cleo doing housework. In a brilliantly staged extended pan, the camera swings slowly to the right and then back again while Cleo navigates the house, up and down the stairs, in and out of bedrooms, gathering laundry, making beds, and tidying up. But despite, the drudgery, it’s a safe world for Cleo, one of daily routines and playing children who love her. When she ventures outside the compound, her life becomes more complicated.
Those complications have to do with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), Cleo’s boyfriend. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, the two rent a room for sex, after which the young and handsome Fermín, lithe and smooth, and utterly naked, flaunts his masculinity for the reclining Cleo by performing martial arts with a shower curtain rod, halting it mere inches from the camera, and presumably, her amused face, as she watches, grinning, from the bed. The scene not only acts a sexual metaphor and parody of masculine and feminine sexual roles, but brilliantly foreshadows a later, darker scene between the two.
Cleo’s character is based on a real woman, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, who was Cuaron’s nanny as a child and has appeared in cameos in Cuarón’s two previous Spanish language films Sólo con Tu Pareja and Y Tu Mamá Tambień. Though the story is largely autobiographical, it’s told from Cleo’s point of view, playing out during the better part of a year in her life. That year specifically is from late 1970 to June of 1971, a year of momentous change and conflict in Mexico, when land disputes generated hostility in the nation’s rural areas and conflict between the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government broke into the city during the infamous Corpus Christi massacre. That event, which is featured significantly in the film, involved a group of government-trained young outcasts and thugs known as Los Halcones (The Falcons) who, posing as student protesters, brutally slaughtered 120 innocent students in Mexico City during the annual Corpus Christi festival.
These events provide the ever-present backdrop for Cleo’s personal story and the film’s primary theme of female empowerment. The two key men in Roma are of little use, and it’s the women who support each other during the darker moments that dominate the second half of the film. “We are alone,” Sophia, Cleo’s employer and the mother of the house drunkenly informs her.” No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” Sophia’s husband, the largely absent Snr. Antonio, a doctor, is leaving her for another woman, a secret the distraught Sophia hides from her children, leaving her, Cleo, Sophia’s mother, the dutiful Teresa (Verónica García), and Adela (Nancy García García), Cleo’s friend and fellow Mixtecan maid with whom she shares a small quarter above the garage, to look after the three children and deal with the coming crises.
Cuarón’s feature resumé, comprised of a mere eight full-length movies in 28 years, is impressive not only for the consistently high quality of his work, but for the breadth of its subjects and the variety of styles he so effortlessly navigates. His films include family fare like the superior 1995 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic, A Little Princess, as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), one of that franchise’s best outings; and searing science fiction nail-biters like the intense thriller-cum-religious allegory, Children of Men and the riveting outer space survival adventure, Gravity. Cuarón has had a hand in many of the screenplay adaptations he’s filmed, but his most personal films are the ones he’s written by himself or co-written with his brother Carlos. These include his debut film, the farcical, yet surprisingly moving sex romp, Solo con tu Pareja (Only with Your Partner aka Love in the Time of Hysteria, 1991), the raunchy, bittersweet road movie Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too, 2001) and now, the profoundly personal Roma.
Many of Cuarón’s films touch on themes of the humiliation and dehumanization of the lower classes by governments and the elite classes, from the frequent roadside harassments of poor Mexicans (by the same PRI government featured in Roma) in También and the brutal holocaust-like dehumanization of the refugees in Children of Men to the near enslavement of Sara and the black servant girl, Becky, in Princess and even the anti-Muggle snobbery of the witches in Azkaban. Though Cleo may bond with Sofia through the tumultuous events in Roma, she’s still the family servant, still separated from her by class and race. Though there is a case to be made that the film’s conclusion has the air of a “mammy” scenario, that of the happy “slave” grateful for her life of servitude, unlike Gone with the Wind’s infamous Hattie McDaniel character, Cleo is not a slave and the film’s climax makes it clear that Cleo is as important to her family as they are to her. And the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that her being a maid is due to the color of her skin. In the end, Cleo is still a servant.
In addition to class, there are other common Cuarón themes in Roma: the symbolic baptismal moment of the film’s beach climax which parallels previous water-as-salvation moments like Princess’ rain storm, Children’s mythic boat trip, and Gravity’s ocean landing; as well as the director’s apparent obsession with cars, here materializing as humor in a funny running gag pitting Sophia’s large Ford Galaxy with some rather narrow spaces, a symbol, perhaps, of her confinement in a loveless marriage.
Cuarón is famous as one of the Three Amigos, a name given to the three Mexican friends and filmmakers, who have recently dominated the best director Oscar category, winning four of the last five statuettes: Cuarón for 2013’s Gravity, Alejandro Iñárritu for Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), and Guillermo del Toro for last year’s The Shape of Water. And it will likely be five for six after this year’s ceremony when Cuarón, the heavy favorite, will almost certainly win his second director’s award for this film. Here he acts not only as director, but writer, editor, and cinematographer and he’s astonishingly adept at all four. His story is carefully wrought, frame by frame, line by line, character by character. He elicits an exquisite performance from veteran Tavira, whose Sophia is a master class in unspoken heartbreak. And each of the four children in the film, as well as those who play their friends and relatives, never, for a moment, seem false or actorly. But it’s first-time actress Aparicio, a real-life, would-be schoolteacher, whose downtrodden eyes and innocent smile steal attention from the director’s virtuoso staging.
And indeed, the sophistication of that staging is second to none. Roma is chock-full of the typical Cuarón trademarks: the long takes, the use of natural lighting, and a series of stunningly intricate tracking shots down city streets, through open country-sides, and across great gatherings of people. There’s mesmerizing and meticulous detail in virtually every shot. And like all great filmmakers from Ford to Fellini, from Hitchcock to Kurasawa, Cuarón has the eye of a painter, utilizing light and space in ways, subtle, stark, and revealing.
The director’s low key, anti-expositional approach may alienate some viewers. As always, Cuarón refuses to tell us anything through dialogue that the characters wouldn’t tell us in believable interactions relevant to the story. (The political background I have provided in this review is not fully explained in the film for non-Mexican viewers and is the result of my own research) and that extends even to the point of eschewing musical scoring, often employed by lesser filmmakers to tell us what to feel in place of skillful writing and artful visual storytelling. (The film uses only incidental music that’s part of the daily Mexican surroundings to provide color and texture.) Cleo’s story is gripping on its own and the film’s slow, naturalistic build, leads to an emotionally gripping climax that provides its own reward. Roma is for those who appreciate film as an elevated art form, an eloquent sculpture in time and space that pleases the eye with a skillfully wrought aesthetic and haunts the soul with a truthful and tenderly rendered humanity. It’s an extraordinary, devastating adult drama by a master filmmaker and a must for anyone serious about movies.