By Noel Vera
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
ALFONSO CUARON’s Roma is, yes, one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year, a blend of artfully lit footage digitally stitched together to appear a seamless whole.
Based on the director’s memories of Mexico in the 1970s and of his own nanny Liboria Rodriguez, the film tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic helper living with an upper-middle class family in the relatively affluent district of Colonia Roma, in Mexico City. The opening image reflects this focus: a lingering gaze on floor tiles as soapy water washes across the gleaming surface, and a plane slides across the reflected sky.
Cuaron leisurely establishes mood and character, using no audible soundtrack beyond what is playing on radio or TV or — on occasion — the movie screen; the relative silence, scored mainly to the clatter of plates, the hiss of scrub brushes, the light cacophony of adult and children’s voices quarreling for attention, emphasizes the serenity of the neighborhood compared to the rest of the city.
There are tensions, familial, societal, political. At one point Cleo’s employer Sofia (Marina De Tavira) reprimands her for failing to clean the dogshit off the family carport — the long tiled hallway we saw in the film’s opening; at another Sofia sharply addresses Cleo who stands gaping “Don’t you have anything to do?” Sofia has just been on the phone, in tears: apparently her husband Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) has left her for another woman.
Cleo has her own problems: she’s seeing the young Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and has missed her period. Cleo visits Fermin as he practices kendo in some kind of training camp, dozens of young men swinging bamboo poles. “Is it for the Olympics?” she asks. “Something like that,” Fermin vaguely answers; he runs to board one out of several trucks and buses waiting to drive the youths away.
The film’s themes gradually reveal themselves: the resiliency of women, the fickleness of men, the way class boundaries are permeable and impervious — impervious in that Cleo is obviously bound by her lack of education and economic options, permeable in that she is able to win the affections and touch the sensibilities of the children she serves. In the background we see and hear student activism simmering unhappily under President Luis Echeverria’s regime — Cuaron keeps the politics at arm’s length but can we realistically expect more from a story told through a domestic’s eyes? Cleo is open but not particularly curious; she has no particular interest in the affairs of the larger world. It’s the immediate world that captures her attention — how the sky looks while lying on a rooftop with one of her young charges; how pulque tastes when sneaking a glass behind her employer’s back.
Turns out Cleo never gets to sip that pulque; she’s jostled and her glass shatters. Turns out politics does intrude, spectacularly — when shopping for a cradle with Sofia’s mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia), Cleo is caught in the middle of a student riot turned bloody, the Corpus Christi Massacre. The outside world intrudes on Cleo’s closed-in world and she can only respond according to her limited means and knowledge.
Cuaron hasn’t shaped the narrative into a neat structure which, of course, is one of the most difficult structures to achieve: life seems to meander along till a crisis happens — Dr. Antonio’s departure, a forest fire, an earthquake, a riot — and Cleo’s wide eyes take it all in. The camera mimics Cuaron’s approach, taking a variety of shots then assembling and patting them gently together to create a seamless whole (a 380 degree pan inside the house for example took 45 camera positions digitally combined) — if the film looks stunning, that’s partly because Cuaron has taken his raw material and fussed over every aspect till he got exactly what he wanted.
Cuaron’s achievement reflects both ways, presenting what’s possible using CGI in a realistic (as opposed to fantasy or science fiction) setting, at the same time underlining the scale of challenges facing past cinematographers, who didn’t have CGI and often had to create their effects on-camera in real time.
If the story is a magpie collection of memories and the visual style a magpie collection of footage, so are the references (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture!) — the name Cleo for one is presumably a nod to Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cuaron has also taken a page from Varda’s use of location, nonprofessional actors, realism). The Ford Galaxie Dr. Antonio drives is an allusion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where the vehicle was Lemmy Caution’s spacecraft of choice and the basis of one of this film’s funnier running gags: when we first see the doctor he’s painstakingly lining up the car to enter the narrow garage (Wide phallic symbol entering tight space — Freudian much?); later Sofia takes the Galaxie’s wheel and heedlessly rams it home (Wife taking anal revenge?). When Cleo gives birth Cuaron basically takes the same shot Dreyer used in Ordet — Cleo seen from the side, writhing in pain — and adopts a different approach: where Dreyer keeps the woman’s nether regions out of sight and only gives us the horrific sound of shears snipping the baby apart, Cuaron gives us the dead child’s corpse, cradled in one hand like a limp mannequin. I can’t help preferring Dreyer’s version (the sound of those unseen shears linger in memory) but there’s a quiet poignancy to Cuaron’s version, plus Aparicio’s artless performance goes a long way in selling that scene.
Does the film work? Does giving us a panorama of ’70s Mexico glimpsed indirectly through the eyes of a largely passive witness work? It depends I think on one’s feelings on this particular subgenre — I think Bertolucci succeeded in The Last Emperor, where the sight of Pu Yi buffeted by the forces of history had its special pathos. Bertolucci benefited greatly from Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous colors; Cuaron’s black-and-white digital photography (he shot his own film) serves a similar function, presenting a personal little story set against an epic background with spectacularly understated beautifully designed style. One of the better films of the year, in my book.
Roma can be seen on Netflix.
By Noel Vera