Director: Alfonso Cuarón
2h 15min | Drama | 14 December 2018 (USA)
Playing London Film Festival 2018
The queue to get into the LFF screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s creative return to his homeland - Roma - is a testament to not just the festival buzz about this film from abroad, but the director’s well-earned reputation for crafting visually elegant and emotionally resonant movies. Cuaron is the master of those sustained, visceral long takes and superbly staged set-pieces that made thrillers like Children of Men and Gravity so memorably immersive and exciting, especially when seen on the biggest screens. In contrast to those movies, which dealt with dystopian civil uprisings and space disasters in orbit, Roma seems to have Cuarón planted feet firmly on the ground, searching for the epic in the everyday as he recreates a month in the life of a busy middle-class family household in a bustling Mexico City in 1971. But the technical skill and ambition is on full display, pedestrian subject matter regardless. Cuaron gets one of his trademark sustained takes in early too: a five minute unbroken sequence where we watch soapy water from an offscreen bucket flowing back and forth over a tiled floor. If that doesn’t sound particularly arresting, even if you allow for the fact this is all shot in gorgeous monochrome, be patient. Over time, a little moment of magic emerges: in the few seconds where the water ripples ease down, a reflection of the skylight above the room stabilises enough to see several planes flying overhead in the sky. I was hypnotised right away, and ready to be immersed in the Mexico of Cuarón’s childhood.
The water-like ebb of life, back and forth from joy to crushing despair, is very much the concern of Cuarón here, and the image of a plane flying high overhead becomes something of a motif throughout the film, as if each signifies the passing of time like the turning of a page, or an hour glass being turned. Though it takes time for the higher stakes to emerge in this long two-hour plus movie, our point of view character - the family’s household maid Cleo - is wonderfully brought to life through the sensitive and intelligent performance from actor Yalitza Aparicio. Much of the first half of the film is told in long takes that give us a tangible feel of Cleo’s busy schedule, the camera being strategically mounted in a room corner or in the middle of an atrium so we can trace, as it pans back and forth from a fixed point, how the family bustle around from one part of the house to another. Cleo is revealed as part maid, part mother, cook and handyperson all in one. Analysing the dynamic of Cleo’s relationship with the family, particularly mother of four Sofía (Marina de Tavira), becomes an intriguing prospect. Cleo is noticeably from a different ethnic group (indigenous) to the more Caucasian-looking family, and given her job title and obvious lack of privilege, it is easy to imagine class and race disadvantages assigned her this lowly spot and her life with the family is not a happy or stable one. Yet things become more complicated the more time we spend with Cleo and Sofia, and see the way various challenges draw them together in a shared mission to protect the four children (none of whom are beyond 12 years old), and how Cleo’s place in the family blurs the lines between maid and aunt. Roma becomes Cuarón’s love letter to Cleo, and the kinds of women who raised him with love and tenderness.
But Cuarón and his production design team don’t just lovingly recreate a characterful Mexican domestic space (aided by some sexy Ford automobiles) in sumptuously composed black and white shots, their ambitions stretch to giving us a potent snapshot of the city itself, and as intensely internal as the family dynamics are, we are constantly reminded that the hubbub of life just outside the family front gate goes on. Production designer Eugenio Caballero and sound designer both deserve plaudits. Cuarón reveals this era of Mexico City as a place teeming with vibrant life, from its cinema and music to the brewing radicalism of the political front. One intensely memorable long-take scene, a showcase for Cuarón’s ability to construct jarring moments of fast-moving turmoil, sees Cleo and Sofia’s grandmother visit a furniture store’s upstairs sales room, only to be drawn to the window as a growing roar beneath in the street signifies a clash between police, paid thugs and students is underway. With shocking suddenness the riot spills into the room with them, and what was just hinted at trough a tension-generating roar offscreen and a distant sight of turbulence seen from above, now violently interrupts our field of vision. In contrast a quieter, but equally lyrical moment, comes earlier on, when Cleo and one of the children recline head-to-head in the sweltering afternoon heat on the roof of the family home. Gently, the camera starts drifting away from the snoozing pair, up to the cityscape just behind and above them, as the intricate and evocative soundscape of the metropolis gradually comes to dominate the audio. It is a nice counterpart to the aforementioned opening sequence, a moment where we are invited to just sit back and let the sound of the city breathing in and out flow over us. This is a film packed with sublime moments such as this.