“This film sees all these women as protagonists. It has been made by all these women and the result is in thanks to them.”
says the director Alfonso Cuarón on ‘Roma’, what arguably is his best film. As he said, this film is definitely about the world inhabited by the female characters around others. But it’s more than just one thing. It is his most personal film, semi-autobiographical, being directly inspired by his own life and the memories from his childhood. Because of the social backdrop; it also serves as a mirror to the everyday life in Mexico around the 1970s. It also serves as a closer look at the working class amidst all the drama revolving the family. It gives an insight into the gender-dynamic while not disturbing the tone of the film.
In the opening shot, we see a stone-like pattern, getting washed up with water. We hear the sound of a distant plane while being absorbed in this mundane task. It looks so pristine and calm as if it’s a floor from a church or a holy place. The water is coming all over again and we just look at the shapes it takes and listen to it. We can’t help but get captivated by it. And then, the camera slowly tilts towards a woman, from a passage outside a house. We realise that it was just a floor from a garage. The woman we see is the housekeeper, the maid of a family.
The film narrates the story about this family, which has Sofia (Marina De Tavira), her husband Antonio and their children in it. We see these children interacting with Cleo and observe her simple acts of caring towards them. Meanwhile, we see glimpses of slowly departing relationship of the couple, the parents of these kids. And while that was happening, our focus is more on the story of Cleo and what she’s dealing with. After all, she’s the heart of the film. She’s in her own turmoil, where she finds herself pregnant by a martial-arts fanatic.
Apart from Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who appears like a backbone to the family and the film, there’s Sofia who belongs to an upper-middle-class family. Despite the fact that they belong to different classes, they both had to face the struggle and fight with the patriarch in their lives. Sofia, who had to hide her feelings in order to be a shield for her children and Cleo who had to live with the pain for their joy had more in common as they didn’t run away from the problems being scared of any consequences. Their strength lies there and that’s one of the reasons we get invested in their characters. Speaking about the classes, Cleo was treated more like a family member than a maid.
But there were little moments where we see it, the realization of their position, reflecting in their behaviour. The mother would say something to her just to take out her anger on someone, when Cleo could do nothing but listen. Even if she was going through something, it was not her place in the society to speak against the ones she’s working for. But again, Sofia would make a warm gesture towards her which would break the barriers between them.
After having seen it more than once, I can remember almost every intimate shot with minute detail. But not just for that, it is also because the film relies, not just on a character or a plot, but the situations. The director shows you the memories as if it is a part of your own life. Coming back to the shots, there were patterns of those, repeated, that we see throughout the film. A mundane task like cleaning lingers for more than a moment and we see similar shots whether a cup broken down on a floor or just a couple of objects lying around of the table. They don’t necessarily convey a lot of subtexts, but definitely help in furthering the poeticism in it.
Whether a car being taken inside through a garage or a band playing from the street, we see it repeated and that, emoted something different each time. The film transitioned from something insignificant to a much bigger picture, like a plane flying in the sky. The transitions while taking us from different sides of a particular subject like birth and death or even within a single shot which would change it drastically within, never felt on-the-face and didn’t disturb the flow of the film. Not just for the writing, but this deserves to be mentioned for the efforts put out to execute them.
This is definitely Cuarón’s most personal film. Every character speaks that. Every simple yet intimate detail in the writing speaks that. But it’s not just the writing. This is the film where he seems to have complete command in every department. Of course, that’s his job as a director. But I’m talking about him coming out more as an ‘auteur’ having almost every department go along in a way that the overwhelming experience holds us till the last frame.
It was initially supposed to be shot by his all-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, but due to the time it took for the pre-production, Cuarón took that job in his own hands. Due to the personal nature of the film, he didn’t want an English cinematographer, for the Spanish language, the film was rooted in. He didn’t want some minute detail getting lost in the translation. And that translates in every frame. But, realism never got shadowed because of the poetic nature of the film. They were so infused with each other that one wouldn’t get invested, only if one resists so strongly. There was no way around for the viewers, where even a mundane task like washing out a floor as mentioned before, would evoke emotions that powerfully.
What I feel significant of Cuarón from the three of his films (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Roma) which what I believe to be his best works; is the use of long takes and holding the attention of the viewers throughout its duration. In Roma, he uses these long takes to smoothly transfer us from one part of the scene to the other, without any cut. Just the smooth pans have every piece of it to tell. It’s not just to beautify for the sake of it. Nor does it want to give a lot of information. It just flows from one place to another, within. The flow is very natural that we easily get used to it.
The continuation of sounds throughout also makes it more lifelike. The sounds become so vocal that they almost become the score. Even the actions of these characters make it seem to travel seamlessly from one frame to another, without any interruption. During one of the Q & A sessions, the film’s cast tells how they were not aware of the complete script and that the scene was told to them on the set; which made their interactions seem like a game, more natural than staged. Between a professional actor like Tavira (Sofia) and a non-actor like Aparicio (Cleo), it hardly seemed strange seeing them interact.
What we realise while watching the film is that there are almost no close-ups. Everything looks wider and we see every movement, every emotion from a distance. The blocking of actors was kept perpendicular to the lens which would have looked flat, without any depth in a frame. But the director compensated it with the background. That has a lot to do with the production team, who worked rigorously to bring the pieces of his memories to the screen. As this had to go according to his vision, this one felt like only he could understand. If something doesn’t work to bring out the period, it just won’t. Even in that sense, it was different than a period piece. It looked contemporary and not like a stereotypical period film, as it had to do more with the sense of the place and the space than just the exterior of it.
While speaking with his prior collaborator Chivo, Cuarón spoke about how the distance he kept was intentional, to look at this like a ghost travelling to his past and how these decisions were purposeful to keep it rather objective than focusing on a single person. In Cuarón’s words,
I guess something consciously I was trying to do was to honour the sense of space—but also a sense of time—allowing the scenes to flow-in. It has this thing also about the present looking to the past; the memory looks from the standpoint of today.
The camerawork was ‘objective’ in Y Tu Mama Tambien as well, in that sense.
And the performance that I simply can’t resist to rave about, the one which takes the centre-stage over the mother of these children was Cleo’s. Yalitza so effortlessly pulls of her emotional baggage than it’s hard to believe it’s a non-actor. But it’s not just for the sake of that, that I’m praising it. Her glowing skin while feeding the children, listening to one of the kids and how he supposedly had an adult life before, wondering for another different life of her own while expecting a baby, someone of her own.
When she was gloomy, the kids gravitated to her and gave us a figure that we would care for, we would trust no matter what. She was the centre of it all, for the tale Cuarón was presenting. And it was almost magical to witness a performance that radiates what every other aspect tries to. But, the effect wasn’t like that until I watched a sequence, the single-take on the beach, that gravitates us and we can’t seem to find breath like them. The after-effect of the film is what makes it. And I watched the film over and over where she’s still able to pull me into it, every time.