Federico Fellini once said ‘all art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.’ Undoubtedly Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film, Roma is a retrospective view of his upbringing in a neorealist style reminiscent of the late, great Italian’s work. It is a view of the past, through the eyes of the present; a lyrical ode to the women that shaped him. Previously Cuarón has taken audiences to magical worlds, dystopian futures and outer space, whereas here he transports us to the eponymous Roma district of Mexico City in 1970.
The opening of Roma is slow, considered and reflective. It begins with Cleo, the live-in maid of a middle-class Mexican family, mopping tiles. As water pours slowly across the squared patio, the soundscapes of Mexico become increasingly apparent. As the wistful tone and slow pace set in, it’s hard to not be calmed and lulled into its soft rhythm. Part of Cuarón’s mastery with this film is to help you forget that you’re watching a work of cinema and draw you in to a transformative experience.
Shot with an Alexa 65mm digital camera, but entirely in black and white, Roma abandons the grain of a traditional film reel for a clear, crisp aesthetic. Modern in its execution, timeless in its feel. This also brings new meaning to Scorsese quote: ‘cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out of the frame’, because the visual scope of Roma’s every frame is so vast. Every scene is layered with detail, with every shot being as wide as can be, whilst there is often a contrast between the background and foreground, always with absolute authenticity. Be it an everyday chore such as mopping a floor, whilst aeroplanes fly overhead, or a slapstick scene playing on a cinema screen whilst heartache develops in the foreground via a conversation between a couple. Political rallies taking place, whilst men are shot from cannons in a fairground. Roma plays out like a soap but resounds like an epic.
The story of Roma is the story of Cleo and the middle-class family she is employed by. Cleo is of Mixteco heritage and is constantly caught between her social standing and her longing for more. Between serving the beleaguered family and being a part of it. In one early scene, Cleo sits down with the family to watch TV, only momentarily as she’s ordered to make the father some tea. As we slowly see the family tensions unfold, conversations play out as in real life, as though we really are peering into their everyday happenings. Cleo is often downtrodden, and she is hit with challenge after challenge, but hers is a story of overcoming the absurd and ironic nature of life to find strength, hope and meaning in family. Astonishingly, this is a debut film role for Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo), who leads with gentle authenticity.
Another part of Cuarón’s brilliance is the mix of these small personal stories with key moments in the national history of Mexico. The backdrop of political unease is ever-present and is brought to the foreground as we witness the Corpus Christi massacre, in which student protestors clashed with a paramilitary group, leaving 120 people dead. As well as the chaotic nature of everyday life in such a busy city, the hustle and bustle comes to life through some of these scenes in documentary-like quality. The story plays out like a documentary and dream, rolled into one.
Another of the film’s resonant themes and contrasts is that of men and women. The constancy of women, despite the churlishness and selfishness of men. We see men running from their responsibilities, failing to lead and protect, as women take hold of their destinies and fight for what they love. It may be ‘a man’s world’, but it’s women who hold families together. The men in this story are just insolvent ‘boys with toys’, often failing to step up and become the men they could be. Be it through their guns, their cars or their martial arts, they live out their childhoods as grown adults.
In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (who also served as his own cinematographer) has shot some of the most beautiful photography ever committed to film. Not only does Roma capture the essence of cinema, it captures the essence of a true artist, pouring his life’s memories out into his personal masterpiece.
Review by Dave Howarth