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Film Review: Roma

Roma (2018; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

What is film for? For Academy Award-winning Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, it is a medium for complete sensory immersion, a complex machine for empathy, an ever-unspooling canvas for galvanizing, soul-shaking images. This is the form that the extraordinary, semi-autobiographical Roma takes, a technical wonder and a moving narrative of pain and healing, loss and love, confusion and despair and chaos and still silence (the kind that can be comforting, unsettling, terrifying, or all three at once). It is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers.

Shot in stunningly beautiful and tonally communicative black and white (Cuarón himself is the cinematographer), Roma is a slice-of-life story about Cleo (Yalitzia Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood at the start of the 1970s. Cleo witnesses the quotidian struggles of the family that employs and loves her, and suffers her own tribulations and small joys alongside them. She watches as the family’s medical doctor patriarch (Fernando Gradiaga) leaves his wife (Marina de Tavira) and four children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta), joins the remaining family unit on vacations, and deals with her own crisis as an unplanned pregnancy coincides with the infamous El Halconazo (a.k.a. the Corpus Christi Massacre) of June 1971.

Roma is named for the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in which the family’s home is situated, but the tentative cinephile can’t help but speculate that the title might also nod to Federico Fellini’s 1972 film also called Roma. Cuarón isn’t quite one for Fellini’s Grand Guignol carnivalesque flair, but both the contemporaneous era and the aesthetic voyeurism of his camera lingering over tableaux of memory-soaked street and domestic settings suggests that Fellini’s work is intended as a reference point of artistic context. Roma is also largely constructed of Cuarón’s trademarked long takes, but the sequences of single-take cinematic bravado in Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También or Gravity are here imbued with organic warmth and seemingly improvised (though no doubt minutely choreographed) naturalism.

Quiet interiors, bustling streetscapes, lively celebrations, buzzing countrysides and beaches all ache with visual poetry, given a varnish of historical shimmer by Cuarón’s own monochrome cinematography and his fundamental technique of foreground/background contrast. The director/DoP demonstrates with stunning simplicity how gorgeous and varied his colourless palate can be in the film’s first sustained shot during the opening credits: a fixed close-up of floor tiles in different grades of grey develops to include the reflection of a skylight in the puddle of water, undulating mop-pushed soap suds, and even the silhouette of a passing airplane. Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow.

It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. When oft-absent father Antonio returns home, his eager family must wait while he parks his too-big Ford Galaxie with exacting precision in the house’s carport; Cuarón shoots this everyday task with quick-cutting tension and humming sound to establish a picture of a man who cares deeply about things other than his loved ones. When Antonio leaves on another claimed work trip, his wife Sofia watches him drive away from their home (for the last time, as it turns out) as a cacophonous brass band marches disruptively past her on the street. A climactic moment of danger on a beach is teased through childish imaginative patter, and the potential fatal enormity of the event is imparted by the huge, flattening sound of the crashing ocean waves.

Film history and intertextuality, too, is employed by Cuarón in telling his story and giving it emotional contour. Cleo tells her martial arts enthusiast boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that she is pregnant by him in the back row of a movie theatre showing a screwy German war comedy; when he leaves, ostensibly to use the bathroom, the finality of his departure from her life (though they have two later meetings of a far more terse nature) is suggested by a fighter plane plunging through the sky on the movie screen. The family later attends another movie, 1969’s Marooned (which Cuarón has spoken about watching obsessively as a child, and an obvious influence on Gravity), and that film’s shots of astronauts adrift in the cold vastness of space approximates the existential uncertainty felt by Cleo as a future single mother and by the family in the absence of their father figure. Cuarón even references his own past work, namely a moment of both underlining and predicting during the El Halconazo sequence that recreates the imagery of maternal mourning of a dead, beloved son of Michelangelo’s La Pietà, much like a scene in Children of Men does.

This species of imaginative travel, for Alfonso Cuarón in Roma as much as (if not more than) anywhere else in his distinguished career, is what film is for. Critics toss terms of praise at any number of overwrought cinematic fantasies like “sweeps you up” and “transports you”, but Roma really does these things, only in a context of heightened realist fidelity. You are there in Mexico City in 1971, tracking past truckloads of bored riot cops ordered to sit on their hands and let paramilitary strike squads murder leftist protestors. You are there at an opulent hacienda haunted by the mounted heads of dead animals on New Year’s Eve, watching party guests and their children hurl buckets of water at a small forest fire while a costumed monster remove his false head and sings a mournful song (a moment of Bergman-esque art-film panache). And above all, you are there seeing the world through the eyes of a meek, ordinary housekeeper, the drudgery of her days but the love and the hurt of them, too. For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.

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