Roma (Mexico-US, 2018)

Chronicle of a life

Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary autobiographical (he says it’s 90%) movie is the best film of the year. He directed, photographed (in a luminous 65mm digital monochrome), co-edited and wrote; that’s an auteur for you. His way of shooting, feeding the casts lines and situations day by day, and using non-actors, is similar to Ken Loach’s and although their visual style is very different; Cuarón also uses melodrama to dramatic effect like the older filmmaker. Roma, an area of Mexico City where Cuarón was brought up, consists of slices-of-life featuring Cleo (a stunning debut performance by teacher Yalitza Aparicio), who stands in for the director’s nanny/maid, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. Cuarón wrote the script based on Libo’s, his sister’s and his own memories.

Cuarón’s visual style (after the green palette of his early films) is most obvious in his use of long takes and often moving camera. The movement in Roma is ‘reduced’ to panning and tracking, no freeform steadicam, and the average shot length is considerable. As is usual, he reserves extremely long takes for moments of high drama. The slow pans, particularly at the start of the film, mark the film as ‘arthouse’, along with (to British audiences especially) its foreign language and ‘black and white’ cinematography. The pans usually move to the action and that action is often banal: the quotidian activities of a maid. The tracks are more dynamic, one reveals a main street where busy life goes on as Cleo chases after the children in her charge. As Cuarón says (he was paraphrased):

“Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds…we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again.”

Wikipedia states the budget was $15m; an extraordinarily small amount even taking into consideration the use of digital editing of images to ensure the setting looks like the early 1970s.

I regularly find myself railing against critics’ mischaracterisation of melodrama. The review of the film in Little White Lies concludes:

‘This is his magnum opus, unassuming, emotion, never melodramatic, sublime…’

The writer assumes melodrama must be ‘over-the-top’ and thereby in bad taste according to bourgeoise standards. As can be seen in the still below, the hugs of the two sets of characters are mirrored showing how both the women feel about the males they clasp. In addition, the cage like gates, and bars on windows, echoed by the caged birds inside, are emblems of restricted lives; Cleo’s in particular. And the meaning of the dog shit is obvious. All these are likely to be Cuarón’s memories but once placed into the mise en scene they take on meanings.

Melodramatic mirroring emphasises the dynamics of relationships

There’s more: during the credit sequence at the start the camera stares at a tiled floor that is being cleaned. Even after the director’s credit the camera lingers and the water that flows looks like the sea breaking on a beach; why is revealed at the end. In the same shot, an aeroplane is seen reflected in the water. This visual sign reoccurs and represents life going on elsewhere; maybe the life of the viewer. And there’s more: the earthquake in the hospital; the gun pulled on Cleo by Fermin and so on. Roma is a domestic melodrama! (I’ll shut up now).

Looking at Cuarón’s work which, Great Expectations (US, 1998) apart, has always been critically highly regarded (including Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US 2004), he is primarily a commercial filmmaker (no offence intended). Roma, thoughis arthouse because of the aforementioned visual style and the painstaking elaboration of daily routine. The second half of the film explodes into action (no spoilers) that manages to combine the personal with the political. Cleo is a Mextico-speaking indigenous woman who serves the family of European heritage; in a great line one of the children states a gringa they’re visiting makes him feel as though he stinks. Cleo’s race defines her class: in one scene she, with another maid, descend many steps to join their ‘people’ whilst the middle classes celebrate the new year upstairs.

Given the small budget I’m surprised Cuarón opted for Netflix. Having resisted any cinema distribution of its films Netflix has learned from Amazon (Moonlight) that certain awards can greatly raise the profile of films so Roma did get a very limited showing in cinemas. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix’s roster of foreign language films (from an English/UK perspective) is extremely limited and I doubt that is about to change. It’s not just that such a film should be seen in its ‘natural’ environment but we shall also have no idea what impact it has, in terms of numbers, on audiences as Netflix doesn’t release the data. Would it have been a crossover hit or remained, outside Spanish-speaking audiences, an arthouse release? If you don’t wish to ‘give in’ to Netflix, join for a month’s free to see this masterpiece.

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