There’s something abuzz in the cinema world, and its name is Roma!
An autobiographical picture by Oscar winning film director Alfonso Cuarón (HP 3, Children of Men, Gravity...just to name a few), Roma isn’t so much a movie as it is a piece of art that comes to life in front of you.
From the black and white picture, to the intricate framing, to the one car garage, Roma is by far the quintessential film of 2018. By far Roma has lifted cinema from being a popcorn munching experience to witnessing the power of how memory can craft an art medium like no other. Roma is a film that uncovers itself piece by piece, revealing with it pain, hope, love, and loss. As a viewer sometimes you’re along for the ride, at others you’re a distant bystander, but all in all, you feel touched by every second Roma is on screen.
The film in its simplest form is about a Mexican maid and her daily life as she cares for a Mexican middle class family. Cleo is young and demure, but also bright and deeply moving. Played by Yalitza Aparicio, new to the screen and acting – period, she brings an authenticity and clear-faced persona to a role that is very rarely seen. The autobiographical standpoint of the film comes from Cuarón and his family’s maid, Liboria ‘Libo’ Rodriguez, who is portrayed by the character of Cleo.
The film begins with water rushing against the screen, which creates a refreshing, vibrant, but lulling atmosphere that will be indicative of the entire tone that the film will bring. After this opening scene, we see Cleo, her friend Adela, and the family that they care for. The mother, grandmother, and four children: three boys and one girl.
As the film continues, we see as in most stories of this genre that Cleo is the primary caregiver of the household. She walks the children to school, tries to keep the more mischievous ones safe with stories of adventures, and cooks, cleans, and even manages the dog.
Further along into the film we see the father, doctor, and patriarch arrive in a sleek, stylish car, taking careful aim to avoid any scrapes or bumps. The family immediately rushes to embrace him, but it doesn’t take long to see that the father and mother’s relationship is strained. Not too long after his arrival, the doctor announces that he is departing for a trip to Quebec. A trip to Quebec that, when read between the lines, implies that he is leaving the family for good.
This scene begins to set in motion the disruption of the characters involved, and slowly but surely cracks away at the safe, homey facade Alfonso took such care to craft at the beginning of the film. The mother begins to crumble (rightfully so) and while she does find her own strength in time, Cleo primarily fills in the missing pieces as much as possible. With the removal of the male presence, it falls to the women to step up to the plate (which is nothing new) but does enhance the narrative of female empowerment and resilience when it comes to the meaning of family as a universal concept.
We then transition to Cleo, her friend Adela, and their two boyfriends: Fermin and Ramon respectively, going to the movies together. Cleo and Fermin decide to opt out of going to the movie, and instead decide to go to a hotel room. After their intimacy we see Fermin in all his glory showing off his martial arts skills with a shower rod. He explains how martial arts saved his life and gave him a purpose, and states that Cleo has does the same.
But theaters don’t seem to suit Cleo or Fermin’s purpose: while watching another movie (the factual one that inspired Alfonso Cuarón to make Gravity) Cleo reveals to Fermin that she thinks she is pregnant. Fermin pauses for a moment, seemingly in reflection, and says eventually that he will go to the bathroom. Time passes and…he doesn’t return. (Plot twist!)
At this point in the film, Alfonso Cuarón is making some interesting artistic choices by playing out moments bit by bit, rather than beat by beat. It’s almost like peeling at a piece of wallpaper and uncovering what lies beneath it, and being in awe of what you discover. This is probably in part due to the way that Alfonso decided to shoot Roma in chronological order. By only providing the scripts or scenarios to the actors daily, Alfonso allowed the actors to genuinely convey authentic emotions, movements, and dialogue in the scenes.
In Cleo’s discovery of the human experience and the way in which life happens to you, she also discovers the processing of pain, and it’s way of fracturing hope and comfort in one’s soul. In an interview, Alfonso speaks on his reluctance to embark on this film, because it would have required him to revisit parts of his past that he would rather not willingly.
One of those parts being when his father abandoned his family at the age of 10—hence the reoccuring themes of abandoment and familial narratives in his films. Alfonso states that when he was shooting this scene, he had to stop and take a moment, as he was directing a pivotal, real-life moment in his life. Fortunately, he was able to return and then finish the scene, in part because he realized that shooting the film allows for there to be a perspective in the characters’ (people’s) motivations, and he wanted to pay homage to that. That, and Libo: the real life woman Cleo is based upon. Motivations aren’t a justification for actions, but it allowed Alfonso to make some sense in that wound he felt was left in his life.
This is a notion that bleeds into the film repeatedly, as it provides a perspective into motivations, and tries to make sense and fill in the cracks along the way. As Cleo’s pregnancy progresses, the familial aspect and quality of her own life doesn’t. She manages to track down Fermin, and is met with contempt and threatening remarks. When she goes shopping for a crib, she is placed in the middle of chaos, as she attempts to flee a riot of student protesters. As the final tragedy strikes Cleo, you as an audience feel scrubbed raw, just as was felt in the beginning of the film with the motif of flowing water.
Remembering this is an autobiographical film, one must wonder how the woman Cleo is portraying feels at watching these events play out in front of her. During shooting, Alfonso Cuarón set up a private viewing tent for Libo to watch, which he filmed in real time. Her emotion was certainly palatable, to say a few. Alfonso even considered altering the way the scene played out if Libo felt it was inaccurate, but Libo stated her emotion was only due to the emotional intensity of the events that were playing out before her. Alfonso was laying out a narrative of pain, its lethal qualities, and the process to return back to healing.
Towards the end of the film, Cleo is put in a situation where she risks her own safety in order to save two of the children she cares for. As she sits weeping on the beach with the children safely in her arms, the mother races to her with the rest of her children, and the entire family wraps Cleo in a clinging embrace.
Roma is Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to the women who raised us; the women who inspired us, and the women who allowed us to become who we are today. She may take many forms, but throughout this film there is some part of this woman that resonates with each person who watches it. Throughout this film, you witness characters in their rawest form, witnessing their pain laid bare before you.
You have the joint venture of this incredible film illustrating 40 years of a true coming-of-age story, and mirroring that story with images of the present.
From Alfonso Cuarón’s conception of Roma, to its use of unconventional storytelling, casting, and narrative, he’s produced a film that is sure to be timeless. But, while Roma is carefully constructed, allowing it to be pieced together like a puzzle, it still offers a blank enough slate that allows the audience to take their own interpretations from it.
And much like life itself, this film goes deep into events that describe joy at its highest peak, and pain at its lowest valley. How those two meet, and the result of the person that gleams from it, carries the tone and theme of the film from the onset of the very first scene. It is no doubt that it is a piece of art, but in a way that can only be understood if you as an audience view it yourself, and glean your own interpretations.
So go in with an open mind, and watch this mastery play out before you. Who knows, in the end it might just have you shouting Roma!