Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón
Marina De Tavira
Jorge Antonio Guerrero
Runtime: 135 mins.
Australian release date: 7 December 2018 (limited release; showing on Netflix from 14 Dec.)
Previewed at: Palace Central Cinemas, Sydney, on Tuesday 30 October 2018.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t made a film in Spanish since Y Tu Mama También in 2001, so it’s significant that he has returned to his native tongue to make Roma, a loosely autobiographical film that looks at the life of a bourgeois family in Mexico City in 1971. It was a tumultuous year, both for the real citizens of the city and the semi-fictional characters in his film, with tragedy common to both. Roma is a sprawling epic that manages to show us the ‘big picture’ while simultaneously drilling down into the minutiae of life, especially the life of Cleo, the Mestizo maid of the family. To suit its scope, Cuarón chose to shoot the film in wide-screen black-and-white, and the result is a stunning work of neo-realism.
The title comes from the district in Mexico City in which the family’s home is located. We enter the quotidian life of the well-off household, which largely hinges on the work of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), all-round dogsbody and nanny to the four children, and her friend and co-worker Adela (Nancy García García), maid and cook. They work long hours uncomplainingly, treated well by Señora Sofía (Marina De Tavira), the woman of the house, and her husband, Señor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), but at their beck and call at all hours. There’s a dog too, ‘Borras’, and it’s tempting to equate his position in the family with Cleo’s, but you could also say that even he has more rights than she does; after all, she has to clean up his mess too because he’s rarely allowed out. There’s a scene where, after a busy day, Cleo is finally able to relax, cuddling some of the children in front of the TV, when Sofía absent-mindedly tells her to get a cup of tea for the Señor. These people would go thirsty before they’d get a glass of water for themselves. And then it all changes. One day Antonio leaves for work and doesn’t come back. The children are told that he is away on business but we soon realise that he has left them for another woman. At the same time, Cleo has fallen pregnant to her creepy martial arts-loving boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), which brings its own set of problems, while outside in the streets uni students are massing, protesting against the policies of President Luis Echeverría. Infamously, those protests culminated in the Corpus Christi massacre on 10 June 1971, when 120 people were slaughtered by the army and para-military forces.
The Oscar-winning Cuarón not only directs but usually edits, or co-edits, his films and often produces them as well. With Roma he has gone even further; in addition to all of those credits, he was wholly responsible for both the screenplay and the cinematography. This is truly the work of an auteur. But the film is not just his. The luminescent Aparicio is the heart and soul of the story and the events we see revolve around her like the planets revolve around the sun. What’s extraordinary is that she had never acted before and had just graduated as a teacher when she was convinced to audition for the role. To make the amateur actor feel more comfortable, given that she is on camera for much of the film’s length, Cuarón also cast her best friend, Nancy García, as Adela. This had the added advantage of making the pair’s friendship more authentic and increasing the film’s sense of realism. It was an inspired idea which contributes to the feeling that you could be watching a documentary, or home movies perhaps. Also making you feel this way are the incredible street scenes during the riots and subsequent massacre. Cuarón’s staging of these demonstrations is quite extraordinary and once again make you think that this could be actual newsreel footage.
Roma closes with a dedication that reads, ‘For Libo’. This is reference to the Cuarón family’s long-serving, live-in maid, Liboria Rodríguez, who the director says he consulted regularly throughout the writing of his script. In the final analysis, though, how much is truth and how much is fiction doesn’t really matter to the substance of the film. Cuarón’s opus, like a great novel, reveals to the reader/viewer much more about human nature than first appears to be written on the page or, in this case, shown on the screen. See it at a cinema - don’t diminish the experience by watching it on a television set. You’ll be amply rewarded if you do.