[VoxSpace Selects] Roma : Alfonso Cuarón’s Rendezvous With The Masterpiece Of His Career

A Film With A Personal Mission

A film is more than just a story. It is the way of telling the story that matters the most. The greatest filmmakers have mastered the art of delicately directing the gaze of the audience towards that what matters and gripping our attention there, summoning us to seek beyond just a simple story. In short, a great film is the one that seizes our attention in a manner that we can never apply in our day-to-day lives. Alfonso Cuarón does the same in his recent film Roma, and he does it with a personal mission.

Roma, as a film, is extremely personal and close to the roots of Cuarón. He based the main character of his film, Cleo, on the woman who was employed by the Cuarón family to work for them and to raise Alfonso Cuarón himself. The director’s love for the woman is depicted impeccably on the screen, and his respect and concerned care for her is unmistakably the central essence of the film.

Cuarón makes Roma one of the most compelling and visually rich films of all times, and in doing so he demands from us the same respect as his for the real Cleo of his life. He asks of us to hold and calm our hearts, to keep all expectations aside, and to give the film the freedom to speak its mind. Roma is a delight, specially tailored for them who are prepared to let go and take part in the experience, on the film’s own terms. Currently streaming since December 14, 2018, on perhaps today’s biggest platform, Netflix, Roma is a painstaking and arresting tale of domestic existence against the social turbulence of the 1970’s Mexico.

Roma And The Quintessential Cuarón

Cuarón’s career has always been sundry and one of the most celebrated. He made his debut with the Mexican movie, ‘Sólo con Tu Pareja’, and then shifted his attention to films that earned him a broad audience along with a massive critical appeal– Y Tu Mamá También, Gravity, A Little Princess, Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Great Expectations.

Cuarón’s style is embedded in not just his attention to detail and his carefully creative narration of the story, but also in how he manipulates the camera with respect to his storytelling. His collaboration with the creative genius of cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, in almost every film he has made, has been responsible for some of the most brilliant results in the history of cinema. At the zenith of Cuarón’s career, Roma becomes his departure from his old self as a director. Although it was decided for Lubezki to collaborate with Cuarón once again while the film was being made, scheduling issues made it impossible for Lubezki to be a part of this venture. Thus became Cuarón, not just the scriptwriter and the director for the film but the cinematographer as well and the outcome is unimaginable.

Roma, inspired from the Mexican city where Cuarón grew up, is set in 1971. The film is shot in classic black and white and opens with a shot taken from the above –long and still. The camera holds its eyes on a driveway made of stone as water is being splattered across it and thereafter appears a broom that is being moved about, cleaning the stones of the driveway. With this as the background, the opening credits are superimposed and the background remains unchanged until the end of the credits. As soon as the rolling of the credits is over, we realize that the broom is being worked by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Cleo works for the family of a well to do doctor, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), including his spouse, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), his mother-in-law, Teresa (Verónica García), and his 4 children. For a shelter, Cleo has to share the room that is above the family’s garage with the other domestic worker of the family, Adela (Nancy García García).

The Dystopian Parable Of Gender, Class And Humanity

“No matter what they tell us, we women are alone,” says Sofia.

Cuarón’s Roma circles around the lives of two women– Sofia, rich and educated; and Cleo, the representative of the silent and the oppressed. The audience knows not much of the two women and learns even less throughout the film. Cuarón seems like he could not care less about them as two different individuals. After all, it is not his motive to tell their stories. They are mere symbols; they are vehicles to his greater vision. His attention is focused on the extreme severance of the socially inflicted gender roles and the metaphorical effects it has on every individual.

Roma is his acknowledgement, his tribute to all the women who have been a part of his life. Cuarón uses an unexpectedly reserved style– he examines his characters as if from a remote distance and then gradually moves in at a relaxed pace, while the film continues to go on. He wants his audience to reflect and ponder upon what they are witnessing.

While in any other film, a character like Cleo would be moved to the sidelines, reduced to a simple background character. But, Cuarón eases Cleo out from the darkness of the shadows, under which she remains, and puts her right under the light with pride. Where themes like the political unrest of the times and the disbanding of marriages would play the primary plot in any other film, in Cuarón’s Roma, these themes are nothing but background noises.

If one was to point out one particular scene that has Cuarón’s genius written all over it, demonstrating how he could give up all the traditional tools of filmmaking and yet brilliantly convey what he wants to be told, it would be the one with the family watching television together on one particular evening. The whole family is sitting before the television and Antonio, (uncomfortably) appears to be happy, even though he is going to leave his family soon. Cleo comes into the room quietly, very self-conscious, stealing curious glimpses towards the television, and after a while takes a seat on the ground beside the couch, spellbound. Cuarón does not make use of one word and yet successfully communicates what he wants to and with empathy and poise.

A Hazy Dream A Memory

Cuarón does not employ many dialogues in Roma. Nor does he present too many views close into the lives of the character. Words and faces are forgotten with the passing of time. Cuarón wants Roma to be felt and perceived like a vaguely remembered dream, hazed out by the time’s tide. He depends more on the impact of sounds –barking dogs on the driveway, sounds of a parade playing at a remote distance, the sound of the music of a song from childhood reminiscence – and on the effect of tiny, but impactful moments– the tender memory of watching a movie in the theatre; the first strike of a slap; and the disgust, disbelief and anger at the sight of the father reveling with a young lady in the public.

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Roma’s story is presented from the perspective of Cleo even though Cuarón attends to the personal ordeal in every frame. While Sofia deals with the separation and dissolution of her marriage, Cleo selflessly raises Sofia’s children with love, care and affection. However, that Cleo is entitled and perhaps had a life that she could call her own, dawns upon Cuarón as a realization much late into the film. Cleo’s was a convoluted life, intricate with both love and treachery, with quiescent ambitions and discontented dreams– similar to that of her employer, Sofia. Cleo might have not been equal, but she most certainly belonged to the family.

Placing Cleo at the centre of the film, Roma embraces a pensive tone. There are times when it is funny in a way that highlights the seriousness that lurks around it. And at all the other times, the most part of it, it is a drama that is serious, coated with the heart aching sense of loss and places women as the centre of the men’s world –men who are driven by ego and passion, almost rendering them worthless.

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Cuarón’s Roma is his endeavour at settling us down, calming us, and finally taking us on a journey –a journey where we live, for a while, inside the life and experiences of Cleo, or perhaps of Cuarón himself, it is difficult to tell.