Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
The first sequence that truly resonated with me in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was one in which a car squishes a dog poo. The patriarch of the family arrives home in his wide Ford Galaxy and rolls it with care into the narrow driveway, wing mirrors just bumping the walls gently. Cuarón keeps the identity of the man elusive through this series of dependably precise shots. As family members young and old appear in the scene as witnesses to his return home all we know of him is this cautious driving, his taste in cars, and the sinuous curls of cigarette smoke inside the vehicle. It reminded me of my own father. Though he didn’t smoke and we didn’t grow up in Mexico City in 1970 and so forth, the sequence captures the unknowable nature of the man in the eyes of a child. He carries authority. Is of a different generation. He is about Work and Being An Adult.
At the end of the sequence, Cuarón cuts so we can see him, without ceremony. And he is, of course. just a man. He looks smaller than we maybe imagined him. Ordinary. The truth of realisation, and of growing up.
Roma is a film about recollection. It is one that Cuarón has had in the works – in potentiality as much as pre-production – his entire adult life; the film he has always been meaning to make next. Now, off the back of the enormous success of Gravity, and with the greatest creative freedom of his career, he has achieved it. In 1973, Federico Fellini made his own film Roma; a tribute to the great Italian city he loved, with traditional narrative through lines removed. It was a series of vignettes strung together to capture the feeling of a place at different times. Cuarón’s Roma is the same but different; a painstaking recreation of time and place; a cathedral of memories; a cultural catalogue.
As with Fellini’s film, anyone seeking something as conventional as a ‘gripping plot’ may well be left to flounder, though there is a story to be told. Still, this is a film in which a Christmas party is as much an event as the sudding of the garage tiles, or a trip to the movies.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is housemaid to a middle class family. She has a brief sexual relationship with a young man named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and she finds herself pregnant. When she tells him, he takes off, shirking all responsibility. Cleo tells her madame, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), dreading that she will be fired. Instead she is shown support and charity and is encouraged to find and confront Fermín.
This thin storyline allows Cuarón enough of a framework on which to hang a multitude of memories, and pay tribute to his own mother in the process. This is as personal a project as one could imagine from him, but in channelling empathy and emotional connections (like the arrival home of the ultimately inconsequential patriarch), he is able to project the personal outward, creating something redolent with universal truths. A child sneaking to a closed door to listen in on a muffled argument, for instance, or a family trip to the beach (the sea is as pivotal to Roma as it was to Gravity, though the maternal symbolism is rendered very differently).
After the dizzying visual dance of Gravity, Roma finds Cuarón (who acts as his own DP) disarmingly calm. Often his camera remains static. Filmed entirely in black and white, Roma is self-serious and austere. When Cuarón does move the camera, it glides with a clinical, mechanical steadiness as though these memories are being viewed by some invisible artificial intelligence that has fallen through a worm hole into the past. The cold detachment of this seems as though it ought to go against the intimacy of the family portrait, and perhaps it does. It frequently reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror (itself a work deeply connected to cultural identity). Tarkovsky’s films are extremely clinical, sometimes at the expense of raw emotional availability. Cuarón achieves something similar here, though finds catharsis when he needs to.
There are virtuoso sequences. At one point we witness a riot in progress through the window of a furniture store, only for the violence to spill inside. Cuarón, in keeping with his established style, barely cuts at all. The sequence becomes about his own slow and deliberate choreography, as well as cinema’s strange fascination and relationship with the gun. In a sense this is only the beginning of a far larger ‘set piece’ as Cleo’s troublesome pregnancy comes to term. Memories of Children Of Men flutter in. But here Cuarón’s technical prowess renders an emotional crescendo as withdrawn, callous even. Again the film flits between the close and the distant.
Roma is dotted with planes. They crest the skies in the corners of shots, high up in frame or sliced up by windows. The film’s wonderful opening shot sees one reflected in those garage tiles; the presence of this window to the sky only revealed once the water washes across the floor enabling a reflection. Flight feathers the edges of the film, prefiguring the life that would come to Cuarón, taking him away from Mexico City, his work as an acclaimed director having taken him all over the world.
Roma is his homecoming, even if it can only be performed to his satisfaction through the minutiae of reconstruction.