‘Roma’ is Cuarõn’s tour de force

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes reviews the Oscar-winning director's latest triumph

29 November 2018 09:41

‘Women, we are always alone,’ Sofía (Marina Del Tavira), the biochemist mother-of-four tells Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of the two young women of Mixteco heritage whom she employs to run her household, a large, gated house in Roma, the upscale district in Mexico City from which Alfonso Cuarõn’s new film takes its title. Sofía makes this announcement one night when she arrives home drunk. She’s just done a terrible job of parking her car – tricky for even the most sober of drivers, so narrow is the house’s driveway – after which she stumbles in the door, where Cleo’s waiting to meet her. Sofía’s husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) has recently left her and their children, so her gloom and pain is understandable. Cleo, meanwhile, has her own problems to contend with. After finding out she’s pregnant, her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) – a man so obsessed with his marital arts training, his idea of post-coital bliss is to show off his staff-wielding skills – has abandoned her. In the most literal of senses, Sofía’s right, both she and Cleo have been deserted by the men who should be providing for them. Yet they’re surrounded by other women: each other; Sofía’s elderly mother who lives with the family; and Adela, the other domestic worker in the home, with whom Cleo shares the small apartment behind the house. Roma is a film about many things, but paramount amongst them is its affectionate portrayal of the world of women.

For all the heartache that Antonio’s desertion of his family brings, one can’t deny that the household exists more peaceably in his absence. In an early scene in the film, the whole family is gathered around the television one evening. Sofía and Antonio are sat on the sofa; their children sprawled across and around them. Cleo moves quietly behind them, collecting dirty crockery, but she pauses in the middle of her task, setting the plates down while she crouches beside the sofa, laughing at the programme on the TV along with everyone else in the room. The child sitting nearest to her reaches out his hand to drape lovingly around Cleo’s shoulder, and for a minute, the barrier between employee and employer falls away and she’s just another member of the family. Then Sofía asks Cleo to make her husband some tea and the spell is broken. Despite the children’s protests, she has to get up and make her way to the kitchen downstairs. Later that night, as she once again heads back downstairs after tucking the children up in bed – a lullaby for little Sofi (Daniela Demesa), a gentle scolding for one of her older brothers to stop messing around and to go to sleep – she overhears Antonio berating his wife about the state of the house and the amount of dog faeces in the driveway. When he leaves the next morning (stepping in a fresh pile of excrement on his way to his car), purportedly on a short business trip to Canada, but actually never to return to the house, Sofía’s angry chastisement of Cleo for not attending to the cleanliness of the driveway is a rare instance of harsh words between the women.

First and foremost, the film is a love letter to the woman who raised him: Liboria Rodríguez, the real-life inspiration for Cleo.

Shot in black and white, with no stars or well-known names among its cast, its narrative structure episodic and fragmented, Roma is the antithesis of the director’s Oscar-winning special effects extravaganza Gravity (2013). Though I fully expect to see it on the list for next year’s most prized of Academy Awards. Based on the director’s childhood (on which point, there’s a nice inclusion of a family trip to the cinema to watch Marooned (1969), John Sturges’ drama about three astronauts trapped in space and running out of air, a film that Cuarõn’s previously talked about as one of the inspirations behind Gravity), Roma is something of a masterclass in cinematic memoir. To call it a work of autobiography would suggest the exact formal narrative propulsion that’s absent from the work. Instead it’s more akin to a series of vignettes, strung together in chronological order from the period 1970-71, through which a world is brought vividly to life.

Cuarõn’s not the first director to manifest his childhood on the big screen – take Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) or Louise Malle’s Au revoir les enfants (1987) – and just as in these films, certain scenes here draw more obviously on Cuarõn and his siblings’ memories of specific events or occasions. Although there’s no favouring of one of the children over the others – indeed, Cuarõn provides us with no clear indication of which of the family’s three boys is himself as an infant – particular scenes gesture towards a child’s eye view of the world.

When, for example, the father first arrives home from work one evening, his wife, children, Cleo and Adela all huddle in the doorway to greet him excitedly, while he fastidiously maneuvers his imposing Ford Galaxy into the aforementioned problematic driveway. Cuarõn flashes between shots of the car all-but scraping the brickwork on either side of it, and evocative close-ups of the vehicle’s interior: a hand, with a half-smoked cigarette between the fingers, alternatively flicking ash into an already overfull ashtray or cranking the gear stick. All of which is set to the accompaniment of a swelling classical music score provided by the car radio. It’s a theatre of sensory impressions as remembered from the vantage point of children who clearly idolize their father: the all-enveloping sound of the music, the smell of cigarettes, fresh smoke and stale butts; the bright lights of the car. When Antonio, on exiting his car, is finally revealed to us as a rather geeky-looking man of perfectly average stature, we’re brought sharply back to the world of adult impressions.

Cuarõn has pooled his and his siblings’ reminiscences in order to recreate as faithfully as possible the childhood world they shared together, but what sets his work here apart from what both Bergman was doing in Fanny and Alexander or Malle in Au revoir les enfants, is that Roma isn’t strictly Cuarõn’s story. First and foremost, the film is a love letter to the woman who raised him: Liboria Rodríguez, the real-life inspiration for Cleo. She’s the character whom the camera follows, from the first to the last scene. Roma is unquestionably her film.

Roma is Cuarõn’s tour de force; a labour of love and a work of art all rolled into one.

Aparicio comes to this film with no previous acting experience – when the casting crew came to her village looking for women to audition for the role (Cuarõn was more concerned with finding actors who could bring a sense of authenticity to the story, rather than impressive professional experience), she suspected them of being human traffickers spinning tall tales – and she is an absolute revelation. She holds the film together; on screen in almost every scene, though far from always speaking. Instead, she’s able to convey more with a look or a gesture than many actors with years of experience under their belts.

Had he gone about his project differently, Cuarõn – who also served as the film’s writer and director of photography – could have found himself accused of the appropriation of the story of an indigenous woman that wasn’t his to tell. It’s impossible, of course, to make a film like this and not say something about the inequalities of race, class and gender. And so too, tendrils of the social and political disturbances rocking the wider world break in on the family’s domestic bubble now and again. There’s the violence of the Corpus Christi massacre, as witnessed from the windows of an upmarket department store. A mention in passing of land-grabbing in Cleo’s village. One of the children’s matter-of-fact dinner conversation, in which he tells his family he saw a soldier shoot a schoolboy dead for bad behaviour.

Cuarõn approaches the entire project with compassion, but never more so than when it comes to the respect and empathy he clearly has for Cleo’s character. There’s a tenderness to the way he’s filmed her that compliments her own stillness and calm. In one of the most distressing scenes in the film – a confrontation between Cleo and Fermín in which she, very gently, attempts to get him to shoulder some of the responsibility for their unborn child, but ends with a him mounting a verbal attack on her that’s shockingly aggressive – the camera angle subtly swings from the more traditional full shot to an angle slightly behind Cleo, thus we’re with her bearing the brunt of his assault.

Shot by shot, it’s hard to think of a film that rivals Roma’s beauty. It’s like watching classic Bergman, safe in the knowledge that each and every freeze-frame would be a perfectly composed miniature masterpiece. There are captivating wide, full screen, stationary shots. That set inside an ornately designed grand cinema, for example, the film inside the film playing out in full on the screen in the background, while in the foreground, another drama’s enacted: Cleo whispers to Fermín that she’s pregnant. Little words follow, but I found it impossible to take my eyes from her face for the rest of the scene. Or impressive 360-degree panoramas, such as that in which the camera tracks Cleo descending the stairs, before making a full circuit of the ground floor of the house as it follows her turning off the lights at night. Not to mention the stunning tracking shots that keep pace with her as she runs along the bustling streets of the city. Roma is Cuarõn’s tour de force; a labour of love and a work of art all rolled into one.