Cuarón’s Expert, Moving Portrait of a Caregiver Touches the Soul
Written and directed, shot and edited by the man who’s upbringing it’s loosely based around, Roma is the textbook definition of a personal project. And yet, it’s in no way self-indulgent. The filmmaker stretching his auteur sensibilities here is Alfonso Cuarón, one of the greatest directors of the past twenty years, best known for his Oscar-winning Gravity, the one truly great Harry Potter film, and his dystopian masterpiece Children of Men. Yet Roma is his first Mexican film since his brilliant 2001 coming-of-age story Y Tu Mama Tambien. And what prompted his return was to tell a story, certainly with biographical elements, but not about himself or a thinly-veiled surrogate, the likes of which you’d see from Truffault or Fellini (who also made a movie called Roma). Roma is rather a touching love letter to his childhood nanny.
Set between 1970 and 1971, it’s the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in housekeeper for a family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. She looks after the home, cares for the four young children, cleans up after the dog, and performs various other duties while the mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) works, and the father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) a doctor, is away on business trips to Canada. However her life and prospects change when she discovers she’s pregnant. All of this is set against the backdrop of the turbulent political climate in Mexico at the time.
From the opening credits where an airplane is seen flying overhead reflected in soap-water on a cobblestone driveway (the airplane and its symbolic purpose in fact bookend the film), it’s clear this is an expertly made movie. Cuarón takes his time to familiarize the audience with the geography of the house in which Cleo and the family live, and even beyond the opening minutes uses as few cuts as possible in individual scenes, preferring slow pans and where necessary, holding on shots. There’s one long take towards the end that follows a similar tonal trajectory to the famous car sequence from Children of Men, and it’s just about as flawless a single-shot sequence as any of the scenes from Birdman. Cuarón’s quite fond of the long take, utilizing it often in this film, and has obviously learned a lot from his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. But it doesn’t distract, nor is it and his other methods used as a gimmick, in fact there comes a point where you barely notice them. But the result of these techniques is to emphasize the utter realism of the piece. It’s clearly influenced to some degree by the Neorealist tradition, and specifically reminds me of Satyajit Ray films like the Apu Trilogy and Mahanagar. And perhaps that’s the reason for its black-and-white photography, which like the long takes, you forget about after a while.
The film has a notable political commentary running throughout. And the nuances would definitely be more resonant to those aware of the political context and history of Mexico in the early 1970s; but it is nonetheless relatable to a non-Mexican audience. Cuarón is very critical of then President Luis Echeverria and the authoritative policies of his government. Reference is often made to family lands being seized, and the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre is re-enacted with terror and violence. More subtextual though is what Roma is saying on race and class. Cleo is of course indigenous while the family she works for is white. The family associate in circles that allow them to spend New Years’ at a hacienda with Americans (where the mostly native help celebrate in a bungalow beneath the estate), while the home village of Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin, which is not too dissimilar to her own, is barren, dirty, and incredibly poor. Perhaps most notable is Cleo’s fear that she’ll be fired for being pregnant, a fear embedded in a history and reality of white peoples’ relationships with their non-white employees. And as much as the family does appreciate her, they can be tone deaf to what she’s going through and can never really understand for themselves. It’s only when she ends up in a compatible situation that Sofia shows real respect for Cleo.
And as for Cleo, it is a godsend that Cuarón was able to find Yalitza Aparicio, a twenty-five year old first-time actress for his leading role. In fact she had just completed her education to be a teacher when she got the part. Cuarón’s skillful direction, cinematography, and script would be admirable regardless, but the film wouldn’t mean much if Aparicio wasn’t giving one of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year. And it’s not a grand or highly passionate performance either, it’s restrained and subtle, but evocative and very very honest. This is an introverted character and it’s a lot harder than people think to convey inner pain and confusion while trying to maintain a humble, unperturbed demeanour. Yet when she must be emotional, she is abundantly so. Aparicio achieves this complexity astonishingly without any formal training in the craft and if you don’t love Cleo as much as Cuarón does by the end of this movie, there’s something hard in your soul.
The rest of the cast are also newcomers. Grediaga is good, as is a thoroughly detestable Jorge Antonio Guerrero. But de Tavira shines among the supporting cast, as Sofia goes through troubles of her own; and the children are all quite likeable, the youngest daughter and son (Sofi and Pepe) are especially adorable.
Roma is searingly beautiful, heart-wrenching, and mesmerizing, but it’s the kind of movie that on its surface looks pretentious, conceited, audacious, and showy, to the point it’d be difficult convincing some people it’s sincere. It’s unlike any movie Cuarón’s ever made, not only his most personal, but his first reflection piece. That he makes it objective and tells someone else’s story is part of what makes it special. Libo was the real-life Cleo, to whom Cuarón dedicates the film. She was a woman who clearly had a big impact on his life and he loves her as a mother. Roma was his way of sharing her with us.