Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ is less of assault on the senses, and more of a gradual infiltration of them, every minute pulling you deeper into this exquisite story. As an accomplished screenwriter, having made his name crafting shorts and features, the director came to prominence with Gravity (2013). Gaudy CGI direction is evidently a thing of the past, making Roma all the more surprising a feat in its delivery. Cuarón harped back to his own childhood, growing up in a wealthy house in Mexico City with his three siblings, struggling to come to terms with the dissolution of his parents marriage. His focus however is on the character of Cleo, an amalgam of his memories and the actual story of his family’s house maid. Cleo’s story takes precedence and the family’s life runs in tandem in the background: an inverse of what he recalled in reality.
Although her life is lined with misfortune, Cleo continues to be the solid fulcrum around which her employer’s family revolve. As their own marriage crumbles, she tends to the four children, and in spite of her own tribulations she rarely lets this surface. Cuaron angles the narrative in such a way that we as the audience do not have complete oversight of her emotions or reactions. In basing this on his recollections of his own family’s domestic servant, he mimics that detached split between employer and employee. In fact there’s an overall absence of reaction shots à la Rear Window, granting Cuarón a freedom in limiting close ups, instead relying on wide, panning shots, instigated by a motivated camera.
A prevalent comment is that Roma is a slow burner, but that’s a customary complaint when cinematography and choreography of sequences are prioritised over plot. A budding sensation grips you throughout, building momentum and creating a visceral pull that is difficult to retreat from. Scenes are obsolete in this world, Cuarón instead focusing on creating captivating sequences, vignettes roll seamlessly into the next like memories tend to do. Shot entirely in black and white, Cuarón is rarely detracted from his vision and it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold. My only reservation would be the marginal loss of visual impact by choosing to release this on Netflix rather than in theatres.
There’s a dreamlike quality to Cuarón’s direction, banal moments in the family’s life are endearing, with smooth choreography of movements. There’s a focus on people, but he doesn’t shy away from more dramatic pieces as the earth’s elements act up: namely, a minor earthquake, a raging forest fire and chilling street riots. All however, serve as a function of the narrative rather than dramatic showcases in and of themselves, connecting the characters to the earth and each other. Opening credits are rolled out at a leisurely pace, soapy dishwater creeping in and out with every ebb and flow. Appearing in the reflection of the soaked ceramic tiles, is an airliner making it’s ascent over Mexico City. That backdrop is subtly significant, as turbulent times in Mexico serve as an ominous force which plagues the characters’ lives. A recurring thread is that of the women in the story, in that their presence is unyielding, despite the turmoil around them. Cuarón spoke of his upbringing, which was predominantly female-oriented and that contrast is evident where the men in this story are preoccupied with overcoming problems by running, fighting and grabbing land. Just like the dog shit that Cleo is repeatedly told to clean up in the porch, it continues to appear in spite of her best efforts, giving credence to the belief that life will continue to hurl unexpected issues at us whether we are prepared to clean the mess up or not.
In one of the final sequences, the children exclaim that Cleo had valiantly saved them in a turbulent tide on a recent trip to the beach.‘Cleo saved us!’ They proudly tell their Grandmother. This is, however expediently followed by; ‘Cleo, can I have a banana smoothie?’ Cuaron elegantly pays homage to Cleo’s life, running in subjugation with that of the family’s. Although they express their adoration for her and ensure she is looked after, there is a subtle separation between her and them. As with the character of Tom Hagen in The Godfather, he was famously in the family, but would never truly be in the family. She’s in his memories, dedicated ‘Pour Libo’ herself, in the closing credits, and eternally in ours. If there’s any justice in the world, Cuarón should be in with either a Best Director or Best Picture gong at the Academy Awards in February.