I think it is unusual, exceptional even, for a movie to approach the wisdom of life through the wisdom of film in the way that Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón has.
However, some of the critics, visibly influenced by the commercial strategy of Netflix, have been unable to see the work other than through spectacles of prejudice, both ideological and aesthetic.
Can the fragile dignity of human beings or the human condition be filmed? Can it be represented through film? I do not think it is an easy task and there are very few occasions on which it has been done fully. Perhaps it was possible in movies from the 1950s and 60s directed by Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, John Ford, and John Huston, but not many others. It was certainly possible in the case of Renoir and Godden’s The River, in The Seven Samurais and in Red Beard, in The World of Apu, The Misfits, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and several films by Ozu. And in a different way, also in later and different works such as The Last Picture Show, The English Patient, The Man without a Past and Gran Torino, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Anthony Minghella, Aki Kaurismäki and Clint Eastwood, respectively. And I think it has happened again in 2018 with the film Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón.
In this case the preposition “by” is justified because the director is also the single-handed screenwriter, director of photography and – in collaboration with other people – editor and producer. In other words, he is the true author, something which cannot be said about many other film directors.
Above all, Roma seems to me to be a necessary piece more than a masterpiece, which I also think it is. The first time I saw Roma –named after the neighbourhood in the City of México, la colonia Roma, not Fellini’s Italian movie– was in a movie theatre, and the second time as well. The first time I allowed myself to be carried by the pure cinematographic marvel of the experience, which is subtle and unspectacular, without attempting to analyse the reasons (although I could not avoid doing so anyway). On the second viewing I was able to make a better analysis of the elements which comprise and shape its meaning.
My first conclusion is that the work itself is reduced by its domestic perspective, for a TV screen, on Netflix. Not through its visual aspect, however, which is conceived for the home screen, but through the sound. It is only by watching and listening to this work in a movie theatre that you can capture and enjoy one of the fundamental characteristics of this movie: its strange and yet very considered depth of field which is not only visual but also acoustic. The depth of field makes it possible to relate the characters to their surroundings, with their physical and social context. And one of the key features of Roma is the relationship between the individual and the personal and the social and general –not as an emphatic element but one which is omnipresent in the backdrop of everyday events.
We are used to the surround sound being at the service of an overwhelming spectacle, such as the excellent, warlike and psychedelic Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola. But in Roma the surround sound evokes only the everyday noises of a neighbourhood, the sounds of the colonia Roma in 1970 or 1971: birdsong, cars and distant planes, dogs barking, songs on the radio, the melancholic cries of street sellers, the flute of the knife-grinder. All of these sounds make up a kind of natural urban music which, in this film, form a parallel to the aromas in À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. In Roma the sounds awaken past thoughts, childhood memories and take us to a different age, connecting us with it. They take us to Cuarón’s time and childhood and possibly also to those that we have been able to live its spectators, also those from other countries and other ages.
The world as seen in Roma has not yet completely disappeared. It is still possible to see in Barcelona, even in 2019, an horchateria with fluorescent lighting and pastel-coloured drawings very similar to the fruitshakes shop in Mexico’s Roma over thirty years ago. And the sculpture of the giant crustacean on a Caribbean beach which appears in Roma is not so different to signs which were popular here fifty years ago along the Catalan coast, like La Ballena Alegre sign on a campsite to the south of Barcelona. Now they are disappeared, just like the big movie theatres that occupied marvellous art deco buildings in Mexico, Barcelona and Madrid in the mid-twentieth century, which were pulled down to be replaced with something worse. It is true that this evocative aspect of the movie is powerful and can contribute to forging a strong connection with a large audience. However, the greatness of this movie does not lie in nostalgia or even in its capacity for resonance.
I think Cuarón’s first good decision is his choice of the main theme. The history of cinema is full of heroes, epics, warriors, criminals, femmes fatales, people with unscrupulous ambition or people in love, etc. But Roma is the first great movie to have as its main character a nanny and a maid who appears completely realistic, with all due respect to Mary Poppins. At last, somebody like that –a maid, a skivvy– is considered and contemplated for the human being that she is, with feelings, with an apparent simplicity and an authentic complexity, and not for her job or her usefulness (and not for her revolutionary or offensive hostility either) compared with the usual protagonists, her middle-class employers.
Cuarón’s choice is an act of love and gratitude. Cleo, the main character, is not pretentious or proud or aggressive, but warm, calm and discreetly wise and heroic. Her character is based on Libo, the nanny who looked after Alfonso and his brothers like a second mother. Only a few changes to the storyline are made to enrich it and give it more depth and intensity. The focus on her, the nanny and maid, means that Cuarón the child is not the star and it also means that Roma is not Amarcord or Fanny and Alexander. However, there are some implicit autobiographical references. The boy dressed up as an astronaut who appears in different situations, such as walking through the woods where the sky is reflected in a puddle obviously represents the child who, as an adult, made a film called Gravity.
Roma is also a happily feminist movie. In fact, it is perhaps the best feminist movie that I have seen since the now-distant, harsh and very slow Jeanne Dielman, by Chantal Akerman. The advantage of Roma is that it does not get stuck in sorry prose and it offers generous doses of audiovisual and narrative poetry. This poetry, like verbal poetry, requires an attentive audience capable of receiving it. Viewers who are distracted are, by definition, impermeable to the poetry and as a result they are left outside the film and they misinterpret it. Some of the more negative criticisms published about Roma are also some of the stupidest I have ever read, even more stupid than some of those published after Kubrick’s 2001 or Lynch’s Eraserhead (in the Spanish press very few of us defended his first feature film when it premiered).
Of course, one can never generalise but it is true that the two male characters in this movie are clear examples of the fraudulence and irresponsibility in both the middle and working classes. Both can be considered to represent too large a portion of the male population, and not only in Mexico. There are many countries in which sexism is a major cause of suffering.
Ideologically, Roma is both a lucid and necessary work. It shows the close relationship between sexism and real-life, militant fascism. Class hierarchy also appears related to racism and sexism. The movie addresses the real distance between the dominating class and the underclass directly and without exaggeration. Contact between the two is possible, even affectionate, but the real distance is enormous. In the Mexican setting of Roma there are millionaires with American surnames, upper middle-class Mexicans, especially of Spanish origin, and then there are native Mexicans, who are the poorest. Within this subordinated class, women are clearly more easily pushed around as shown in the scene of the martial arts training camp.
Another positive aspect of Roma is its authenticity. When an author talks about what he knows, what he has seen, about a place and a time that he has lived through, it is only a guarantee if he knows how to do it in the best possible way. In other words, the way he expresses it has to match his experience. In Roma, Cuarón clearly achieves this to the extent that the movie reminds me of two books which are also exceptional by Marcos Ordóñez: Turismo interior and Un jardín abandonado por los pájaros.
The way that the characters, things and actions are shown is important, as is the way that feelings and ideas are expressed. In Roma, the coherence between form and content goes beyond the obvious cinematographic and photographic beauty of black and white. For example, all the camera movements make sense in relation to the story and are not simply the hallmark of the author’s ego. Distance is also decisive, being related to the narrative tone and the way in which the parts are played. In this film, the actors do not seem like actors and the actions seem like they come from a documentary. An incredibly well-filmed documentary, having said that.
The depth of field is fundamental in this movie. I do not think I have seen such careful use of this expressive cinematographic device since Playtime, by Jacques Tati –a comedy which is also rich in sounds and noises and which thematically reflected on the relationship between people and their surroundings in an mass society. In that sense, in Cuarón’s movie scenes such as the childbirth, with the baby and the doctors out of focus in the background, are particularly memorable. Or the gradual presentation of the demonstration and its repression: at that moment the background scene of police repression moves to the foreground.
In his Notes sur le cinemátographe, Robert Bresson wrote this aphorism – an excerpt from his approach to film-making: “When everything is not there, but when each word, each gaze, each gesture, has a backdrop meaning”. And there are others by Bresson which fit this film, despite it being very unlike his own works. Especially this one: “The production of emotion through the resistance to emotion”. But also, these two: “Telephone. Its voice makes it visible”. “Tweaking what is real with what is real”. This last one, in Roma, is seen in certain relations between the image and the sound.
In Roma only the water reveals the truth.
The script of Roma is a marvel of conciseness and measured doses of narrative tones. Cuarón alternates scenes which are extensive enough to represent everyday life in a real and truthful way with others which seem to be mere brushstrokes but are in fact significant concentrations of truth. Sometimes they are poetic flights which reduce distances and relate the four basic elements of earth, fire, air and water. In Roma fire is destructive hatred, in the earth there is also shit, the air is like a kind of evasive dream-state and only the water reveals the truth, just like the mirror of film. Incidentally, when you look at the title Roma in the mirror you see amoR, or love. Water is also the element that enables purification and renewal – something that was known at the time when the main religions, including Christianity, were created and which is often forgotten.
The everyday scenes in Roma sometimes alternate with metarealist glints which reflect the Mexico that so fascinated Luis Buñuel. For example, the collection of stuffed dogs around the walls of a large country house, or the bullet-man who is fired from a cannon in a miserable puddle-filled vacant lot where loudspeakers broadcast the false promises of electoral propaganda. Or the infraguru, the trainer of the martial arts fighters who at first are almost comical but later appear as evil agents.
The movie manages to either say or suggest a lot, even in a few seconds or a single sentence of dialogue. For example the swanky car which barely fits into the parking place is enough to evoke the vanity of the middle classes and the economic and cultural colonialism that the United States imposes on Mexican society. The fact that the owner’s wife writes off the car later on as a result of her reckless driving is also significant. Or the comment by a man during a kind of picnic party with sun, alcohol and loaded pistols: “So women don’t shoot?”. The conciseness that Cuarón achieves is comparable to that of Juan Rulfo or Albert Camus.
This work by Cuarón, his most autobiographical, is also strangely capable of supporting associations with other very different works by other authors. He broaches, for example, the topic of emotional displacements within family and social structures. The character of Cleo is like a second mother who officially cannot cease to be an obedient servant. In a way it is similar to the real but unrecognised fathers in Ju Dou, by Zhang Yimou, or the previous masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu Ukigusa (Floating Weeds), with which Cuarón’s movie also coincides with the use of aircraft sounds as a linking mechanism and an expression of distance and solitude.
Finally, one of the essential themes of Roma is that of the true but unrecognised hero. But the epic of Cleo’s character is feminine and more discreet than that of the silent hero played by John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And when Cleo, who is marvellously embodied rather than played by Yalitza Aparicio, reveals herself as a heroic character, precisely then, she feels guilty because a question that her conscience had not resolved, nor recognized, and she says at the last: “I did not want him to be born”. And then her life goes on as it had before –harsh and salaried.
To the non-Mexican critics who judged the earthquake in one of the scenes as being artificial, I would just say that earthquakes are completely possible and not at all artificial in countries like Mexico or Japan. I was in Mexico DF in the summer of 1985 and the building where I lived (in the Roma colony, precisely) had been the victim of a devastating earthquake just weeks before. It no longer exists. The danger of earthquakes forms part of the day to day existence of the Mexican people. It is like the light of the sun, the fallout from corruption or the danger of death, which are ever-present, as a backdrop to life itself.