An aesthetically stunning cinematic feat, Roma gives a vivid account of a Mexico City childhood set against a backdrop of surging political repression.
Over a family meal, a boy casually tells his family of an incident he’s witnessed on his way home. A child had been playing, throwing water balloons at passing cars. One car stopped and the child was shot.
The camera doesn’t linger. It observes silently and keeps on the move. It mostly follows Cleo, the family’s domestic worker, as she goes through endless chores, silently, calmly. Her work is thankless. She is shown to be held in deep affection by the family, but has her assigned place.
Roma is a largely autobiographical film. The film’s title refers to Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighbourhood in which Cuarón grew up. His childhood memories are inextricably bound, in real life, to a woman he calls Libo, a maternal figure and portrayed by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio, who appears here as Cleo. Somehow a domestic life, in both senses of the word, becomes epic, and a humble, quiet woman becomes a heroine. Small touch by small touch, almost by stealth, a story emerges with immense grandeur.
It is rare in cinema to see the very personal and the deeply political so seamlessly joined. Cuarón positions anodyne details of personal life within historical turning points and underscores this by highlighting the harshness of sexual politics in an essentially male-dominated society.
Cleo finds herself in a precarious situation when she is in a shop while the brutal repression of a student demonstration, the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, unfolds outside. When militias run to pursue and kill fleeing students, Cleo finds herself face to face at gunpoint with a man she knows. A cast of hundreds battling in the street provide a counterpoint to a moment which distils the myriad ways in which power can be abused in every sphere of life.
A fine sense of the absurd accompanies the camera’s unflinching black and white stare. Roma reveals the intensity of the long shot. The distance is physical and also temporal, and blunts nothing. There is no need for close-ups. Cuarón systematically avoids explicitly subjective film language even though, taken as a whole, the film is highly subjective and entirely personal. These are the memories of a child, a bystander in his own life, mediated by adult knowledge.
In Roma, the gaze is all. The luminously sharp intensity of the black and white images, shot in grain-free digital, on an Alexa 65, draws out the vividness of childhood memories. The formalism and precision of Cuarón’s photography – he acted as DoP in the absence of his usual collaborator and childhood friend Emmanuel Lubezki – elevates the story in ways that make one re-evaluate the use of colour in film.
Every frame is a photograph, and every shot a living tableau. Nothing is left to chance, from the reflection of clouds on the bodywork of a moving car, to the faces and clothes of demonstrators in a riot scene. There are recurring details that are almost private symbols – a passing airplane reflected in a puddle, early in the film, and later seen high in the sky. It’s a focus of attention that evokes a child’s still fresh perception of the world. That precision and detail is also evident in all aspects of Eugenio Caballero’s superb yet unobtrusive production design.
In a heart-stopping scene, the sound design, that had already been more than pulling its weight, shifts into something that is both powerful and understated, working at a physical level in a way that is almost unfathomable.
Cleo is a symbolic figure. She is loved but remains unknowable, both saint and noble, uncomplaining victim of circumstance. That she inspires empathy but perhaps not understanding is perhaps a rare limitation of the script, but might also simply be evidence of a courtesy – a wish not to go too far in exposing the life of a person close to the filmmaker’s heart.
Dir & DoP Alfonso Cuarón
With Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tariva, Fernando Grediaga| 2h15
Now streaming on Netflix. Roma is both an aesthetic and physical experience – here’s some guidance for optimum tv viewing: https://myromamovie.com/best-viewing-practices