“Roma” - Alfonso Cuarón (2018)

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) is a film that, given its stylistics, I wouldn’t have expected to be to my tastes.  After all, it’s a slow-moving tale with many long takes and without a clear-cut narrative direction over the course of much of the film.  And the fact that the film was shot in black-and-white would seem to further distance the goings-on from the viewer.  Nevertheless, I found the film to be a rich and rewarding viewing experience, and I strongly recommend it to you.

Alfonso Cuarón, a well-known filmmaker with a range of styles, is perhaps best known for his dystopian sci-fi thriller Children of Men (2006).  But Roma appears to represent something of a departure from his past dramatic work, in that it seems more personal and reflective.  Certainly its creation was personal – Cuarón was the writer, director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer of this film.  Moreover, the  story of the film is set in 1970-71 in a neighborhood of Mexico City and in a family setting that corresponds closely to Cuarón’s own childhood family environment. 

Note also that as far as stylistics are concerned, the film’s title, Roma, which here refers to the affluent Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, has suggested to some reviewers a sly reference to Italian neorealism of the 1950s and 60s [1].  However, I would not place too much emphasis on that association, other than as an offhand homage to Federico Fellini.

Anyway, the film was very well received by critics [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8], and it won numerous awards [9].  In particular, Roma received 10 nominations for the 91st U.S. Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it was chosen by Time magazine and the New York Film Critics Circle as the best film of 2018.

The story of Roma revolves around the experiences of a young woman, Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez, who is an indigenous [10] live-in maid for a professional family living in the upper-middle-class Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.  The focalization of the film is exclusively maintained on Cleo, the part for which is wonderfully played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio; but much of what is going on in the film are things that happen around and to Cleo, rather than events generated by Cleo, herself.  In this sense Cleo is more of a witness to the world around her than an active causal agent; but thanks to Yalitza Aparicio’s sensitive performance, the viewer can empathize with all the subtle feelings she has over the course of the story.  Thus by this means of a largely passive protagonist, as in many famous cinematic and literary works (think, for example, of those of Franz Kafka), the viewer has access to the larger social themes of the story [11].

These major themes, which are essentially interrelated, are:
  • Womanhood and Motherhood  – what it means in terms of expectations, obligations, and fulfillment.
  • Manhood – particularly in connection with the obsessive emphasis on masculinity in Latin American culture.
  • Love – what love entails in all its forms, not just romantic love.
  • Life and Death – how one faces the ultimate issues of existence.
Given the fundamental nature of these themes, we can say then that Roma is an existentialist film [12].  Note that I am in agreement with philosopher Shawn Loht that for a film to be considered to be philosophical, it need not explicitly articulate a philosophical thesis; it can simply present its philosophical themes in the form of a phenomenological experience for the viewing audience [13].  And it is this existentialist nature of Roma that elevates it to an exalted status.

The rather meandering plot of Roma revolves around Cleo and the household in which she works.  These people are
  • Sofía (played by Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family
  • Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), Sofía's often absent husband and the family’s father
  • The four young children:
    • Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey)
    • Paco (Carlos Peralta)
    • Sofi (Daniela Demesa)
    • Pepe (Marco Graf)
  • Teresa (Verónica García), Sofía's mother
  • Adela (Nancy García), another indigenous live-in maid of the family and Cleo's close friend
A key feature of this story’s telling is Alfonso Cuarón’s artful and contemplative cinematography.  This was Cuarón’s first outing as a solo cinematographer, but he reveals himself here to be a master.  There are many long, carefully-staged panning and tracking shots, some lasting more than five minutes, that reveal the atmospheric milieu in which Cleo lives.  To some viewers these shots may have suggested to them the documentary-like flavor of Italian neorealism, but Cuarón’s shots are far from that kind of offhand spontaneity.  Instead, they are so carefully framed and executed that they evoke a moody, almost haunting, feeling on the part of the invisible witness viewing (via the camera) what transpires in the film.

An example of this is the opening shot, which lasts 5½ minutes and shows Cleo dutifully mopping the enclosed driveway of the household.  Then various mundane household activities are shown that gradually introduce the family members and Adela to the viewer.  Father Antonio is shown briefly, but then soon leaves to go on a research trip to Quebec.  Because mother Sofia works as a science teacher, Cleo must spend a considerable amount of time looking after the children.  And although the children are often naughty, it is clear that they all love Cleo, and she loves them.

Adela and Cleo are close friends, and they often converse with each other in their native Mixtec language.  One day Adela arranges a double-date by having her boyfriend Ramon bring along his relative Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) to be with Cleo.  Fermin, a cocky young he-man obsessed with his martial-arts practice, soon maneuvers Cleo into sleeping with him, and they begin an affair.  A couple of months later, however, Cleo suspects she is pregnant, and when she  informs him of this when they are making out in the back of a movie theater, he quickly excuses himself to go to the bathroom and immediately disappears from her life.  Like so many young women in her position, Cleo is going to have to face this problem alone, without any support from her male partner. 

When with great hesitation Cleo informs her mistress Sofia about her condition, she expects to be fired.  But Sofia responds with great sympathy and tells her she will support her through this crisis.  This encounter is shown with great sensitivity in a moving 5-minute shot.  The viewer will soon learn that Sofia is, herself, dealing with her own problems with men who disappear from their responsibilities.  Her husband Antonio is pretending to be away in Quebec but is actually back somewhere in Mexico City and having an affair with another woman.

As Cleo’s pregnancy proceeds, there are various other dramatic activities depicted, including a family visit to a friend’s countryside hacienda, which happens to occur when a massive forest fire breaks out and everyone frantically works together to try and curtail it.  There is also a time when Cleo was able to track down Fermin at his martial arts class.  When she approaches Fermin, he dismisses her as a mere servant, and he threatens her with life-threatening violence if she claims he has any legal responsibilities in connection with her condition.  Sofia, by the way, is suffering with her own problems, too, and at one point, in a half-inebriated state, she moans to Cleo that “we women are always alone”.

Finally, with Cleo’s due date approaching, Teresa takes Cleo to a store in town to look at a baby crib to buy.   But just at this time the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre (10 June 1971) erupts on the streets [14], and in this connection Cuarón shows graphic glimpses of the violent slaughter that ensued, including a brief encounter in the store that indicates that a gun-wielding Fermin is one of the participants.

In the midst of this chaos, Cleo’s water breaks, and she has to be somehow rushed through the now chaotic, traffic-congested streets to the hospital emergency room.  This is one of the most dramatic sequences in the film, and it culminates with a tension-filled 4½–minute shot showing Cleo on the operating table and having to painfully suffer through the delivery of her stillborn daughter.

Shortly thereafter and with the divorce of Sofia and Antonio also concluded, Sofia decides to take the family and Cleo out to the beaches of Tuxpan so that they can get away from it all for awhile.  However, here another crisis arises when two of the children defy their temporarily-away mother’s instructions and wander out too far into the ocean, where they get caught in the undertow.  Even though she doesn’t know how to swim, Cleo desperately rushes out into the water and just manages to save the two children from drowning.  This is shown in an astonishing 5½-minute shot (you will wonder how they managed to stage and rehearse this shot).  This mesmerizing sequence provides a moving and memorable slant on the film’s theme of life and death.

At the end of the film, Cleo and the family return to the home in Colonia Roma and ready to resume their lives, but also ready to face whatever new challenges life may offer to them.

So over the course of this film, we get a glimpse, through the sensitive eyes of the housemaid Cleo, of some of the fundamental issues that women face today.  The context here in Roma is Mexico, but this story vividly covers problematic themes that women face the world over – sexism, racism, class prejudice, and the inevitability of death.  But it also conveys, thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s profoundly context-sensitive cinematography, the overriding positive theme that underlies womanhood at its most fundamental level – love.
  1. Nick Pinkerton, “Film of the week: Roma reframes Alfonso Cuáron’s boyhood through the eyes of his family’s maid”, Sight & Sound, (28 December 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Roma review – an epic of tearjerking magnificence”, The Guardian, (29 November 2018).   
  3. Beth Webb, “Roma first look: the film of Alfonso Cuarón’s career”, Sight & Sound, (5 October 2018).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory”, The New York Times, (20 November 2018).   
  5. Josh Kupecki, “Roma”, The Austin Chronicle, (7 December 2018).   
  6. Brian Tallerico, “Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (21 November 2018).     
  7. Glenn Kenny, “Venice Film Festival 2018: The Mountain, Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (30 August 2018).    
  8. Tanmay Shukla, “'Roma' Review: Alfonso’s Cuarón’s masterpiece is a cinematic achievement”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (October 2018).    
  9. “List of accolades received by Roma”, Wikipedia, (6 January 2020).   
  10. Note that indigenous people make up more than 20% of the Mexican population, but they generally have a considerably lower economic status.
  11. Jessi Jezewska Stevens, “The Hidden Power of the Passive Protagonist”, Literary Hub, (5 March 2020).   
  12. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   
  13. Shawn Loht, “Phenomenological Preconditions of the Concept of Film-as-Philosophy”, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, vol. 2, (2015).  
  14. “El Halconazo”, Wikipedia, (15 February 2020).  

No comments: