Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ is spellbinding cinema

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona on the director's extraordinary cinematic achievement

13 October 2018 14:39

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) is a masterpiece: no other word will do. The director’s autobiographical account of his upbringing in Mexico City – and, more specifically, the period 1970-71 – has already scooped the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, and will certainly win many further accolades. The question one asks after 135 intense and often emotionally-draining minutes is: where does its extraordinary power come from?

DRUGSTORE CULTURE was fortunate enough to attend a special Netflix viewing of the movie last night, hosted by Cuaron’s close friend and collaborator, David Heyman (who produced the director’s Oscar-winning Gravity in 2013). It is no exaggeration to say that the audience – which included such luminaries as Terry Gilliam, Andrew Garfield, Christopher Hampton, Kristin Scott Thomas, Chris Pine, Annabelle Wallis, Martha Fiennes, Sai Bennett, Lily Newmark, Josie Rourke, William Oldroyd, and Tracey Ullman – was spellbound by what it saw.

One of the highest compliments that can be paid Roma is to acknowledge the elusiveness of its impact: there are no cheap emotional tricks, no standard plot-twists, no sentimental sleights of hand. It is both chamber piece and epic. The agonisingly personal is juxtaposed with the wide-shot taking in great vistas of action and vibrancy.

Dedicated to Cuaron’s beloved nanny, Libo, Roma explores a period of turbulence in the life of a middle-class Mexican family. In an early scene, the patriarch of the house, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is shown trying desperately to park his car in its narrow entrance – a splendid metaphor for the mid-life crisis and affair that will take him away and force his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to pretend to their four children that he is working in Quebec.

'Roma' trailer

The slow implosion of the household is seen through the eyes of the maid, Cleo, played with riveting delicacy by Yalitza Aparicio (remarkably, her first performance). She and her friend Adela (Nancy Garcia) are our eyes and ears, participants in the central drama but, as indigenous women, never treated as quite equal to the family they care for.

“Women, we are always alone,” a drunk Sofia tells Cleo in the doorway one evening. What she forgets is that Cleo is doubly isolated in the house – a woman who is also far from her home town and regarded, however paternalistically, as a second-class citizen.

Cleo dates Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a comically inadequate boyfriend whose showy machismo is not matched by basic decency when she becomes pregnant. In a surreal scene, she tracks him down to what amounts to a paramilitary training ground in the desert scrub where he is part of a unit learning martial arts. His response to her appeal for help is shockingly vicious.

Disorder, madness and entropy are always at hand to menace bourgeois complacency – in the form of dogshit on the floor, an earthquake raining plaster on to the incubators in a paediatric ward, even dogs’ heads mounted crazily on a wall.

Notionally, the film takes its title from the ‘Colonia Roma’ district in Mexico City. But there is also the heavy implication of quasi-imperial hubris, decadence and decline – the fragility of the family mirrored in the social unrest that creeps into the narrative, as history and intimacy mingle uneasily.

'Roma' (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)

In a stunning sequence, Cleo is choosing a crib with Sofia’s mother in a department store when the camera pans out of the window to reveal student protests in the streets – and back to show Fermin brandishing a pistol as he chases a wounded man into the shop. The vulnerability of children is a theme explored with pitiless clarity throughout the movie. It is horribly apt that Cleo’s waters break at this particular moment.

In a Q&A after the screening, Marina de Tavira talked about Cuaron’s unique directorial method: ‘I was trained in the theatre – we’re used to playing the game and doing it the way the director wanted to do it. This was another game, and a beautiful one.’

Was the 110-day shoot improvisational? Not at all, explained co-producers Gabriela Rodriguez and Nicolas Celis. Cuaron knew exactly what he wanted – but revealed it to his collaborators only when he was ready, chronologically and in stages.

‘Without a concept we didn’t know exactly what the film was going to be about,’ said Celis. ‘We didn’t know about the complexity of those memories.’

Some of the locations Cuaron wanted to revisit had been destroyed in the great earthquake of 1985 – but no matter. Everything had to be precisely as he recalled, authentic in every detail: newspapers, toys, shops, even sounds. If a street had gone, it was recreated.

For Yalitza Aparicio, the initial casting seemed suspect, in a community where such auditions are unfamiliar. ‘At first, I thought it could even be trafficking in women,’ she recalled. ‘I thought it could be a kind of risk…[Then] I did get to meet Libo who I play in the film. At first she was able to tell me some of her story. She stopped exactly before the time where the film starts.’

Now Libo’s story, and the director’s, has been immortalised in film. Cuaron joins a long list of auteur directors who have drawn upon their childhood experiences to weave magic: Andrei Tarkovsky in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Federico Fellini in Amarcord (1973), Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander (1982), Louis Malle in Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), to name but four. He is a distinguished and worthy addition to that special cinematic pantheon.