It’s no mystery why so many distributors wait until the very end of the year to release the most competitive quality films. This is certainly the case with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which is in very limited release, and can now be seen on Netflix. There’s little chance that a Spanish subtitled film, in black and white, will do great domestic box-office. But its chances are best when distribution coincides with the awards season, beginning in December, or earlier, and culminating with the Oscars. At any rate, look for Roma to be a top contender in all of them.
And it deserves to be. Purportedly based on Cuaron’s own childhood in “Roma”, a suburb of Mexico City, the main character, Cleo, is a maid for an upper-middle class household. The family consists of a doctor, his wife and their four young children, three boys and a girl. Pepe, played by Marco Graf, seems to be the character based on Cuaron.
Cleo, who comes from an isolated village, speaks a dialect called Mixtec, which is designated by brackets in the subtitles. Still in her late teens, she is in awe of the cosmopolitan life of her employer. The film sensitively presents how she painfully adjusts to the often hostile realities of modern life.
Those realities are presented as sudden, ugly disruptions of a generally life-affirming narrative. Cleo is dutiful and is strongly supportive of the family, especially the children, all of whom adore her. But we see from early on it is a troubled marriage. The doctor, while a proud and doting father, is cold towards his wife, and harshly critical of the servants. It is an extreme annoyance to him that Cleo doesn’t clean up after the family dog, whose waste is left in piles in the garage for days on end.
The early signals of domestic discord prefigure the crisis to come. It is credible, if not unfamiliar family drama. Throughout, the children observe it all at a safe distance emotionally, vaguely aware of a strain between their parents, but still able to experience the joys of childhood undisturbed. But these scenes are only interwoven, not always seamlessly, into the main narrative, which is about Cleo.
Whatever the real person who served as the model for the role was like, Cuaron wants to present Cleo as a girl of near saint-like innocence. Fortunately, Yalitza Aparizio is able to express the character’s sweetness, youth and naiveté without actorish mannerisms. We can easily see why Fermin, her boyfriend, played by Jorge Antonion Guerrero, is drawn to her, and that her joy at affection from him, the first man in her life, is also credible. Still, Cuaron is anything but subtle in his hints of the cruelty to come. Movie lovers know by now that part of the pleasure of these set-ups is seeing when, and how, we find out what a rat this guy is. And, predictable or not, I thought the most original and wickedly satisfying scene in the film was Fermin’s reaction to finding out that Cleo was pregnant.
This happens close to the halfway mark, but the real emotional impact of the film, what will reduce many in the audience to tears, rests on two brilliantly filmed scenes that plunge us, mercilessly, into the trauma that awaits Cleo. In the first, we watch breathlessly as she is taken to the hospital in premature labor for the delivery of her child. In the second, the dramatic climax of the film, we see her, now recovered, minding the children at the seashore while their mother steps away for a moment. Cuaron’s filming of that scene, which stands out as one of the most perilous to its actors that I’ve ever seen, left me shaken.
And yet, despite Cuaron’s artistry, the scene serves a dramatic purpose that, in retrospect, is less than satisfying. While Cleo’s heroism when the children are in danger is undeniable, her subsequent emotional breakdown is shown to relate to her feelings about her pregnancy. For me, this was just too convenient; more to attach a dramatic significance that the narrative failed to support. Having seen the film twice, I still find it a weakness.
But this is a minor quibble in what is, generally, a moving and absorbing film. More distracting, however, is Cuaron’s depiction of the social unrest in Mexico in the early 70s. We are shown scenes of massive street violence that look like a civil war, but who is fighting whom? And why? There are brief mentions of “land seizures”, including the home of Cleo’s mother’. Also, we can see that Fermin belongs to a violent, vaguely fascist group, but how it fits into the conflict is unexplained. I think that Cuaron wants us to see it as Cleo does at the time; a frightening, near supernatural event.
In retrospect, those scenes seem to belong to another film altogether. That may be a good film, if it ever gets made, but they really don’t add to Cleo’s story. I was reminded of the great neorealist masterpieces, like DeSica’s Bicycle Thief. The neorealist films generally concerned characters whose suffering was clearly due to poverty or unfettered capitalism. The emotional impact depended on showing how social conditions were the direct cause of so much human misery. But Cleo’s tragic story has no explicit connection to social problems. She has a steady job, is well taken care of by her employers and leads a well-balanced life.
Finally, I should mention the photography, which Cuaron did himself. It is excellent throughout, but the fact that it is in black-and-white has gotten a lot of critical attention. As I mentioned before, the neorealist films were an obvious influence, but also probably the association of black-and-white with the “glow” of childhood, especially when depicting some idealized view of the past. But I found none of that here; it didn’t “glow”, and it clearly wasn’t meant to. The imagery is, if anything, rather plain and functional. Cuaron has said he tried to reproduce the details of what he remembers when growing up. Several elaborate slow pans are meant to take in that detail; still, the camera movements and editing never detract from the story. With all of that in mind, I can’t see why color photography of equal quality wouldn’t have worked just as well. This is not a criticism, just an observation.