Roma – you may not be aware that it is a neighborhood in Mexico City, the home turf of Alfonso Cuaron’s youth, and the setting of his new film, one which will surely enter the pantheon of great cinema.
How do you finesse the telling of your own, highly personal story almost as a subplot to the narrative of another character? With exquisite sensitivity and artistry, Cuaron has done just this – presented a tumultuous year of his upper-middle-class youth through the eyes of the family’s young Zapotec housemaid/nanny. Within one improvised family, and through the lens of different social and economic classes, he has interwoven parallel stories of betrayal and love and anchored them both with the theme of belonging, of finding home. Roma is dedicated to his own childhood nanny, Libo.
Cuaron, acting as his own cinematographer, shot Roma in black and white, which immediately places the film within the context of classic cinema. Actively engaged in the production design, Cuaron found a home, which is where much of the action takes place, that was structurally nearly an exact duplicate of the home of his childhood. It has been recaptured by assiduous attention to detail: reproducing the same pattern of tiles, borrowing 70% of the original furniture from relatives, and filling drawers exactly as he remembers them, though only one is ever opened. The home acts as a proscenium upon which many of the most telling moments occur. And shooting in it clearly opened emotional doors for him.
I was lucky to hear Cuaron speak about his process after a screening of Roma in Los Angeles. One of the great triumvirate of Mexican directors, Cuaron typically shows his screenplays to his compatriots Guillermo Del Toro and AIejandro Inarritu and withstands often intense scrutiny. But this story, so intimate and so unique in the telling, he kept to himself. Typically screenplays are constructed like buildings or, perhaps more accurately, like bridges, which is to say technically, one element relying upon the soundness of another. Typically audiences are thought to need a sense of an impending crisis, to keep them intrigued as to how and when it will occur. Cuaron knows this and yet in Roma decided to disregard it in favor of a more lyrical, expansive approach, following the course of events as they actually transpired. And the tension, even as it remains somewhat amorphous, rises throughout and culminates in a series of climactic events.
The film opens with the credits floating over floor tiles being doused with water, almost obsessively so. As the camera pulls out, we see young Cleo, our protagonist, putting away the bucket and mop and carrying on as a housemaid – fetching laundry out of numerous rooms, traversing from kitchen to table and back again, then morphing into the nanny, collecting children from school. It is clear that she is part of the family and loved by the four children of which Cuaron, as Pepe, is the youngest. (We assume this from the sly references to Gravity in Pepe’s fantasies.)
Early on, Cleo and her coworker, who share a bedroom, giggle about two young men courting them. One night, instead of heading to the movies, Cleo’s beau, Fermin, suggests an alternative. Cut to a hotel room where the wide-eyed Cleo, clutching the sheets, gazes at a naked Fermin rapidly twirling a long stick in a severe display of martial arts. Soon finding herself pregnant, Cleo reveals this to him only to watch him vanish. Reluctantly, fearing she will be fired, she tells her employer, Teresa, the family’s mother. At this point we have only seen Teresa dealing with Cleo in an abrupt manner, although we wonder if it is due to her husband Antonio’s harsh words to her about the house looking like a mess. Upon hearing Cleo’s news, one almost expects Teresa to pull back, but she doesn’t. Things have changed for Teresa as well; we have seen Antonio set off for a long business trip and rebuff her goodbye embraces, leaving Teresa in the street looking on in despair at his vanishing car. Her own mother, a marvelous towering matriarch with a white page-boy, a limp, and round glasses, has advised Teresa to tell the children that he is simply away on a long business trip, which we now know from her tone of voice is not true.
As the story progresses, as Cleo becomes larger and Teresa more disconsolate and reckless, the two women seem to have more in common than not. Antonio does not return, and Cleo, who takes a long bus journey to find Fermin, witnesses him training in a dusty field with a hundred other young men. Led by a Fellini-esque he-man in satin tights, the group executes the same intense martial arts moves we earlier saw Fermin perform. When Fermin struts up to her, he tells her the child is not his problem, jabs a long stick toward her and tells her never to seek him again.
Those sticks reappear in a student riot witnessed, by a near term Cleo and the matriarch, from the second story windows of a furniture store where they’re shopping for a crib. (An actual event in 1971, the year the entire film is set, the Corpus Christi massacre left 120 people dead, many killed by para-military agents dressed as students.) Then, as they try to escape the melee, the two are trapped in the family car in a tunnel and Cleo has now gone into serious labor. The rest of this tale needs to be seen and not told, but as the story unfolds, Cleo becomes a heroine and more deeply vital to the family than ever.
Cuaron’s juxtaposition of the historical with the personal is mirrored in his camera work. The interplay of long, quiet closeups with noisy, kinetic, wide-angle mise-en-scenes gives the film a dynamism that the plot itself eschews. Large, brightly lit street scenes counterposed to intimate moments in Cleo’s small, darkened room add to the viscerality of the story. There are some fabulous party scenes as the family winds up at an uncle’s sumptuous ranch for the Christmas holidays. A huge assemblage of children and adults picnic in a field and shoot pistols at invisible targets, then later mingle in grand rooms stuffed with taxidermy. Fireworks lead to a fire in the woods and the entire clan gathers to daisy-chain buckets of water to combat it, while in the foreground a man, dressed as an enormous, hoary werewolf, removes the costume’s beastly head and sings a dirge.
In his remarks after the screening, Cuaron divulged directorial secrets and answered the question about why this project and why it took so long to come to fruition. After Gravity, he said, “life happened. Age happened…”, which warms the heart of anyone nearing or over 60. Then he explained how he achieved such a sense of immediacy in the family interactions.
To start, the entire cast was almost completely comprised of non-actors, many playing their actual roles in real life. As for the casting process – the star, Yalitza Aparicio, a school teacher, only appeared at an audition (in Oaxaca, birthplace of his own nanny) at the urging of a friend who was too pregnant to do so herself. Cuaron immediately saw Libo. As Libo had, in real life, worked side by side with a childhood friend of her own, Cuaron asked Yalitza if she had a close friend, which she did. He thereby secured another non-actor for the role of Adela, and the young women’s comradeship is palpable. This casting device, which he first used in Y Tu Mama Tambien (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna were also childhood buddies) works like a charm, creating screen relationships possessed of levity and ease.
Branching further away from typical production norms, Cuaron gave no one, neither cast nor crew, copies of his script. And, even on a daily basis, he gave no one dialogue but Yalitza. Thus the rest of the actors, to whom he gave ‘intentions’ and secret motivations, were largely improvising in response to Cleo’s actions and those of the others around them.
There is no doubt in my mind that Roma is a masterful piece of cinema, affecting on a gut level as well as a symbolic one. Although an elliptical condemnation of the entitled cruelty of men, Roma emerges more as an elegy for the enduring and creative strength of women. At this time of human history, when the rights of women, of immigrants, and of whole social classes are imperiled, Roma carries extra import. That Cuaron addresses these issues without ever hitting them on the nose is remarkable enough, but that he does it with such compassion and understanding is profound. It is no wonder that Roma won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival this year. Hopefully, as it is Mexico’s nomination to the Academy, it will go on to get an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Please go see it, and in a theater if possible. It so deserves the big screen and a very, very wide audience.