Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ feels close to home
It all reminds us of — guess where? — Manila, with its endless din of competing voices and people living their daily lives, oblivious to any Big Picture.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a maid for an upper-middle-class family, first shown hosing off doggie doo from a garage floor as the opening credits roll in Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City-set drama Roma. It’s an endless job, because the dog, Borras, leaves huge fresh crap bombs seemingly every hour. Cleo’s employer, Sofia, chastises her maid whenever those bombs show up. But there are plenty of other bombs in Cuarón’s mostly autobiographical black-and-white take on his childhood.
As Cleo, Aparicio, a non-actress, holds center screen for much of this movie; it’s her perspective of life in a household in Colonia Roma, a district of Mexico city in 1970, a time when men hold most of the cards, the militarized government is cracking down on protesters, and overpopulation and poverty grind away at people’s lives while they just shrug and carry on, seeing no another way to live.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is the eyes, ears and soul of Roma.
Sofia’s husband, Antonio, is a doctor and straying husband, leaving his wife — along with her two maids, Adela and Cleo, and her own mother — to raise their four kids in a spacious house that’s nonetheless falling prey to entropy: the older boys, Pepe and Paco, fight in the living room and a baseball ends up smashing through a window; in another scene, Sofia arrives home drunk, sloppily parks the family Ford Galaxie in the narrow garage space and racks up several new dings and dents in the process; she bitterly tells Cleo, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” And then there are those endless piles of dog poop.
Cuarón has said that 90 percent of this movie — screened only once in Manila at Gateway Mall before it made its debut on Netflix last Dec. 12 — comes straight from his childhood, and that makes it his most intimate, yet harrowing and personal, film yet. Pulled back to Earth after the majestic space of his Gravity (slyly alluded to when the family go to a cinema to watch the 1969 space rescue epic, Marooned), Roma relies on Cuarón’s trademark unbroken takes and intricate pans (one pan takes us down Colonia Roma’s main street, circa 1970: an eye-popping display of cafeterias, electrical repair shops, sidewalk characters and rich, chaotic detail) to fill this space to capacity.
It all reminds us of — guess where? — Manila, with its endless din of competing voices and people living their daily lives, oblivious to any Big Picture. Instead of taho vendors, there’s a guy with a whistle and a cart, selling some kind of cooked fare. Military parades show up and pass by with little public fanfare or recognition. A guy is shot out of a cannon into a safety net as a political announcer mouths platitudes over a loudspeaker. In another scene, the family visits a relative’s home in the mountains (reminding us of Baguio) where the owners preserves their family dogs by mounting the heads like trophies on the walls. Borrowing some of Fellini’s frenetic surrealism (especially La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), Cuarón plugs us into a teeming world, running on its own blind volition, endlessly seeking not much else but a path to surviving the next day and the next day and the next. If that’s not a parallel with Manila’s poverty stratum, I don’t know what is.
Cleo and Toño discuss death, resurrection, and past lives as an astronaut.
Cleo is the connecting thread in all this, the maid that all the kids love, the one that Sofia can’t bring herself to dismiss or lecture, even after she becomes inconveniently pregnant. Cleo’s journey as a pregnant woman abandoned by a worthless sperm donor is the film’s most harrowing, and it raises the stakes emotionally for her, and for us. Cuarón taps into endless pools of memory (and perhaps a great deal of invention) in capturing the woman who practically raised him as a child in Mexico City. (Yayas are as big a deal there as they are in Manila.)
Some will watch Roma and see poverty porn. While its unvarnished view of the squalor of Mexico City suggests the genre, and it no doubt did well in international festivals which champion such depictions of squalor, I would argue that Cuarón imbues his film with more personal detail than the average misery travelogue. With all due respect to, say, Lav Diaz, it is possible to paint more hues to life than an unbroken take of a chicken pecking at farmyard dirt for five minutes. Plus, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous to look at (the film would have been severely less so in color).
Indeed, there’s more to Roma than just wrist-slitting horror; there’s a delicate balance between the unlivable, the unthinkable, and the merely bearable in life. The balance is enough. A child sees more than we can imagine as adults; life holds unexpected moments that amount to, at least in memory, a kind of magic.
Surrealism rules in this view of circa ‘70s Mexico.
While the director says his own character is based on Paco, one of the older boys who witnesses his parents’ fragmentation firsthand, I prefer to think of him as the youngest boy, Toño, who spends time with Cleo spinning stories about being dead and resurrected, about having lived many lives and adventures before, as an astronaut, as a sailor. Toño is the one who tells stories in order to cope and survive, and that’s another theme of Roma: how people share their stories with one another to give their lives shape, meaning, and a sense of community. “I have so much to tell you,” Cleo says to Adela after returning from an almost-disastrous trip with the family to a beach in Tuxpan. But Adela first has to go to the store and buy groceries for the house; and Cleo has daily chores to do as well, as we see her gather the family’s laundry, mount the stairs and proceed with her day, very much as she did in the opening sequence.
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