THERE ARE PERIODS IN HISTORY THAT SCAR SOCIETIES AND MOMENTS IN LIFE THAT TRANSFORM US AS INDIVIDUALS.
Alfonso Cuarón released the best movie of 2013, the space thriller Gravity, and then it took him five years to make another movie. Amazingly, it turned out once again to be a masterpiece, a return to his native Mexico.
Still, the most historic part of this film may be as the ultimate symbol of the year when Netflix finally took the decisive step to become a powerhouse in the distribution of movies, a combined effort to address the need for films to be available for a wide global audience, both in cinemas (where this film is best experienced) and in the privacy of your home through streaming. After this, it’ll be tough for other directors to resist what Netflix is offering.
Mexico City, 1970. We are in the Colonia Roma neighborhood where we are introduced to an upper middle-class family. Sofia and Antonio (Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga) live in a big house with their four young children, Sofia’s mother and two maids, Adela and Cleo (Nancy García, Yalitza Aparicio). Antonio is a doctor preparing to leave for a conference in Quebec, but the children don’t realize that not everything is alright between their parents. As the marriage begins to disintegrate, Cleo meets Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial arts student, who becomes her boyfriend. One day she realizes that she’s pregnant and tells Fermín in a movie theater. That’s the beginning of a painful period of her life…
Looking into Cuarón’s past
Cuarón had been preparing for this film for a long time, just as he had carefully studied the science and philosophy behind his previous Gravity and Children of Men (2006). This time, he was looking into his own past, basing the story on his upbringing in Mexico City. The family is loosely inspired by his own and there are clear references to both his and his country’s past. There’s a nifty scene where the kids go to see a cheesy sci-fi movie by John Sturges called Marooned (1969), and we instantly understand that this is where he got his inspiration for Gravity. And there’s another very disturbing sequence where Cleo and Sofia’s mother end up in the middle of a riot where one of the protesters is murdered inside a clothing store. If you know modern Mexican history, you’ll recognize this as part of the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971, where soldiers attacked student protesters, leaving 120 people dead.
A tumultuous period for Mexico as a nation and Cuarón ties it together with his more personal experience of upheaval. Main focus lies on Cleo the maid, though, and Aparicio is excellent as the young woman who becomes like a sister to the four children while going through a pregnancy that she never asked for; in its quiet way, the film is a comment on class and the damaging restrictive abortion laws of Mexico. Roma builds up to a very emotional climax where it’s hard to separate Cleo from the family even if she’s just an employee; there’s also a bond growing between her and Sofia, two women who have to fend for themselves after being abandoned by men.
Visually speaking, Cuarón wanted his brilliant collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki to be his director of cinematography, but he ended up doing the job himself. You can tell that he must have learned from Lubezki. This is such a beautiful film; each shot has a camera that is registering every small detail as it slowly keeps moving. The shots are deep and seem to be revealing Cuarón’s memories step by step, some of them long and requiring meticulous planning, such as a memorably chaotic fire.
The film is hauntingly bookended by clever shots of planes crossing the sky over Mexico City, perhaps symbolizing Cuarón’s desire to go out in the world. Or maybe it’s just another vivid memory.
Roma 2018-Mexico-U.S. 135 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodriguez. Written, directed and photographed by Alfonso Cuarón. Editing: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough. Cast: Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo), Marina de Tavira (Sofia), Fernando Grediaga (Antonio), Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa.
Golden Globes: Best Director, Foreign Language Film. Venice: Golden Lion.
Last word: “When working, I had extensive conversations with the real-life Cleo. And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation. And a woman that comes from a more disadvantaged social class, that also comes from an indigenous heritage in a society that is ridden by class, but very perversely, like in the whole world, race and class are intimate. There’s the other perverse relationship between class and race. So this is the woman who raised me, it’s my – it’s weird to say surrogate mother because it’s a strange word. Put it this way, that’s the case of so many domestic workers or nannies. They have more presence in your life than sometimes the biological mom.” (Cuarón, Vanity Fair)