December 18, 2018

Film & Television

Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful ‘Roma’

By Craig Mathieson

Roma. Image by Alfonso Cuarón

This Academy Award favourite elevates the domestic to the monumental

Memory has both a monumental weight and a piercing intimacy in Roma. The autobiographical new film from Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has an effortless ability to contain, as if its creative borders expand and contract; this is fitting, considering it is simultaneously a frontrunner for Best Picture at next February’s Academy Awards and being distributed worldwide through the streaming service Netflix. Roma makes the vast feel granular, while allowing an extended family’s travails to illustrate a nation’s fractious clashes. Its seamlessness is masterful, the resulting vision compelling.

Beginning in 1970 and covering roughly 12 tumultuous months, Roma takes its name from the upper-middle-class Mexico City neighbourhood where it is set. The homes, hidden behind gates and shutters, are enclaves, and it is only when Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid, goes up on to the roof to hang out washing and you see her equivalents doing exactly the same on nearby rooftops, that you sense how rigidly duplicated the social order is.

Cleo is the fulcrum of Roma. As much as the film is modelled on Cuarón’s upbringing, the four children – three boys and a younger girl – are a raucous, undifferentiated, demanding quartet; moods and realisations run through their daily lives, but one child is rarely distinguished from another. Cleo, like the camera, is a witness who must observe but not interfere. The children’s parents, an oft-absent doctor named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), have reached, at the former’s instigation and to the latter’s shock, the end of their marriage. For Cleo, who perceives the split before the children do, the new dynamic is another unspoken duty she must navigate.

Her daily chores, undertaken along with her friend and roommate, the cook Adela (Nanci García), are the story’s building blocks: life is what happens in-between tasks. The everyday routines do eventually give way to momentous events, but Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer after a long and rewarding collaboration with countryman Emmanuel Lubezki, shoots both in the same style. The camera stays at a distance, mostly eschewing close-ups, so that the frame is defined by the dynamic between bodies, while long, tracking shots and measured pans provide illustrative information about this world.

Shot in a digital 65mm format, the rich black and white images and their attendant greys have a formal grandeur. Even as the characters go about their actions, you feel that this is the past – or how one of the characters might remember their own past. The sense of distance is subtle but certain, and as Roma unfolds it allows for a sometimes harsh contemplation. The comforting warmth of adolescent autobiography – the childhood wonder, the gentle reassessments – are not present here. Cuarón’s directorial control, which allowed for complicated action sequences in 2006’s dystopic thriller Children of Men and an immersive sense of outer space’s finite boundaries in 2013’s Gravity, is now calmly judgmental of the forces at work.

The expression of power is measured through changes in the household dynamic. When Antonio criticises Sofía, she in turn takes it out on Cleo, who, along with Adela, has an indigenous heritage that includes speaking the Mixtec language, whereas the family speak Spanish. But with Antonio absent and Sofía struggling, there are unspoken sympathies and shared gestures that Cuarón weaves into the daily fabric of their lives. Cleo goes to the movies on her day off and spends time with her date, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and her subsequent encounters with him vividly illustrate Mexico’s political upheavals at the time. Individuals in Cuarón’s movies are often at the edge of extreme situations, but never before has he been so attuned to using their experiences to illuminate simple but profound inevitabilities of life such as love, responsibility and loss.

Cuarón draws on various strands of cinema and repurposes them. The economic observations and social friction of Italian neorealism has a gilded, gliding tone here. A Christmas trip to the country estate of wealthy family friends, where ruling privilege is viewed as a given, is ruptured by a forest fire, and the response of the drunken guests – indignant at the display of destructive force but nonetheless unconcerned that it could impact them – has the off-kilter social skewering favoured by Luis Buñuel in his latter works. Even in the midst of chaos and incomprehension, Cuarón is revelatory.

Yalitza Aparicio had never acted prior to the filmmaker casting her, and her presence provides an unadorned compassion. It is Cuarón’s film – he is its sole star – but he neither exploits nor exults Cleo. When a road trip, an event that echoes Cuarón’s 2001 breakthrough Y Tu Mamá También, ends with an innocuous trip to the beach that goes wrong, his camera is unflinching in tracking Cleo’s struggles in the ocean before the scene ends with a tableau of such perfect form and expression that it could be a Renaissance fresco. Many directors would end on that moment, but Cuarón returns the family to their home and concludes with an acknowledgment of their roles. Roma is undoubtedly a great film, but it’s this final nod to the differing limits that demarcate these lives that makes it one of the year’s best. Cleo returns to the roof, fixed in place under the immense sky with more work to be done.


Roma is streaming now on Netflix and screening for a limited time in selected cinemas.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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