Director Alfonso Cuarón Goes Home Again in a big way.
DIRECTED BY ALFONSO CUARÓN/SPANISH/2018
Painful memory and nostalgia of a home long ago combine in the highly personal articulation, Roma. Roma is far and away unlike other movies, the least reason of which is that this 70mm big screen affair was bankrolled by streaming king Netflix, thus primarily relegating it home viewing.
The freedoms and distractions inherent in experiencing a quiet, measured and somber film such as this from the comfort of one’s own couch can only undermine the intended experience. But, were it not for Netflix and it’s loco-deep pockets, Roma would likely not exist at all. Thus, we must note that the amazing gift to the filmmaker (being able to make this long-imagined film, just as he wanted, on a large budget) is also a kind of gift of the magi.
Roma isn’t the one-to-one autobiography of its filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También), but it’s a story for which he, as a kid, was close enough. Embellished, perhaps; but not at all realized through rose colored glasses.
The film, in fact, is a whispy greyscale, a vision caught somewhere between oneiric nostalgia and documentary realism. Roma is a poetic sort of tone poem (long form), with no punches pulled. Detail and scale, detail and scale, detail and scale… played out in cinematic vignettes detailing the go-nowhere life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a Woman in Trouble.
Newcomer Aparicio gives a resonantly sensitive performance in playing Cleo, a guarded, introverted young woman. Cleo is a live-in domestic servant to a well-off family in early 1970s urban Mexico. Her life is a perpetual swell of grotesque tasks and domestic homemaking. When the ill-will towards the prickish man of the house and all of his fancy loutishness slowly overtakes his stressed-out wife (Marina de Tavira, said to be one of very few experienced actors in the film) and mother of the small children, the negativity rolls downhill- landing always at the feet of lowly, quiet Cleo.
Dilapidated storefronts, house-sized mud puddles, clotheslines and power lines… This is the mundane, workaday world of Roma, which is located in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City. Even the upscale residence of the central family has a carport that is perpetually littered with dog crap. Each night, the family vehicle arrives home, haphazardly squeeeeeezing into the narrow parking area. If Cleo hasn’t washed the thing down by then, she’ll hear about it. Unpleasantly.
But, don’t misunderstand, this household is essentially the only family Cleo’s got. When she finds herself pregnant by an uncommitting militant masochist, these people (primarily the wife, who can relate on some level) consciously voice their decision to support Cleo in this desperate time. But nevertheless, all is not well.
With no movie stars in this intimate epic, the burden of promotion for Roma has fallen onto Cuarón himself. This means interviews galore, tireless junkets, and no awards ceremony missed. And yes, Roma is picking up its share of film awards.
To the common viewer, however, Roma remains the most difficult of marketing challenges. A humorless escapade into a go-nowhere world where planes frequently pass overhead, though no one local is ever on them, Roma is already a tough sell. Add to its qualities that it foregoes both color and a musical score, and raw personal ambition becomes one of the only hooks to hang the film upon. Did I mention it’s in Spanish, subtitled?
Fortunately for Netflix, film buffs, and the film itself, Cuarón wields no shortage of raw personal ambition. Scenes of large outdoor gatherings and even political street rioting are handled with the same care and detail he applies to the many interior family scenes. No memory fragment is too minuscule, even as Cuarón avoids Almost Famous-level vanity by making Roma not his own story, but that of his housekeeper. He went to great lengths in gathering both authentication of his screenplay (we’re told the real-life woman that Cleo is modeled upon was consulted) and in recreating the vintage world of Roma itself. (Cuarón is said to have spent six months tracking down and collecting the exact pieces of furniture that adorned his childhood home). In every moment, the commitment is felt.
Though rooted in a different time and place, Roma serves to humanize and sympathize with both urban Mexico City itself, but even more-so, the kind of downtrodden women that film and television chronically look right passed. Cleo, like so many, tends not to stand out; all the more reason that she must do what she can to simply get through life.
In telling all of this, Caurón formally assumes the mantle of not just one of contemporary cinema’s great risk takers and visionaries, but also a great director of stories that are unabashedly, deeply feminine. That is a life and world he cannot truly know, yet through Roma, we all do.