Alfonso Cuarón (2018)
The most honored film of 2018, even prior to its ten Academy Award nominations revealed yesterday, has been Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical memory of Mexico City in the early 1970s, whose title comes from the Colonia Roma neighborhood of the Mexican capitol, where Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) grew up. He has called the film a tribute to the women who raised him. But it’s also an allusion to Federico Fellini’s 1972 autobiographical film by the same title, and the style of the film owes a great deal to Fellini.
You may have noticed that the film never played anywhere near central Arkansas. In fact, it played on very few screens nationwide—just a New York-Los Angeles kind of release (making it eligible for Oscars and the like) until Netflix, the film’s distributor, made it available on your personal computer screen. So if you want to see Mexico’s entry into the “Best Foreign Language Film” category, fire up your laptop, pop yourself some microwave popcorn, and settle in to watch this flick online in the comfort of your own home.
Unless you’ve read something about the film before, the first thing that will surprise you is that it’s a black-and-white movie. That in itself is a bit of a jolt nowadays—Spielberg did it with Schindler’s List a quarter of a century ago, and that was a throwback to thirty years earlier, when they still made some feature films in black and white. The second thing that may surprise you—it may even irritate you—is that you can hardly hear anybody when they speak (which is seldom), so if you actually want to follow the film in Spanish good luck. Thank God for the English subtitles.
These aspects of the movie can be explained largely by the genre in which Cuarón seeks to place the film. The Mexican director is employing Fellini’s Italian neorealism: For those of us who didn’t go to film school, Italian neorealism was a style of film that flourished among Italian directors in post-World War II cinema. Such films were black and white, told stories of poor and working-class characters, were filmed on location, often employed non-professional actors, and dealt with economic problems and injustices of everyday life. Major examples were Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Fellini’s La Strada (1956).
Cuarón’s neo-neorealist film focuses on the life of a maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for a wealthy upper-middle-class family of a doctor, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), in the upscale neighborhood of Colonia Roma. Sofia is a biochemist but is not working at the time of the film. The couple live with their four children (a girl and three boys between perhaps six to twelve years old), a dog whom nobody seems to want to pick up after, Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Verónica García), and another maid, Adela (Nancy García García), with whom Cleo shares a room. The youngest child, Pepe (Marco Graf), is an imaginative kid who makes up stories—presumably the Cuarón character, though the story is told from Cleo’s point of view, not Pepe’s. The first part of the film shows us Cleo’s duties around the house, her gentle interactions with the children, and her friendship with Adela. But we also become aware of the tense relationship between Sofia and Antonio, and note how strained things become when Antonio leaves for a “conference” in Quebec and never actually comes back.
In a parallel plot, we see Cleo going to a movie on a double date with Adela and her boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza), paired with Ramón’s cousin Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). She and Fermín blow off the movie and get a room instead, where a memorable scene occurs in which a fully naked Fermín demonstrates for Cleo his martial arts skills with the use of a shower curtain rod. In a later scene, this time while they are actually in a movie, Cleo reveals to Fermín that she believes she is pregnant, after which he excuses himself to go to the restroom and never returns. The film develops between these twin poles of masculine neglect.
It is noteworthy that Cuarón, true to his neo-realist inspiration, has cast a newcomer,Aparicio, as the lead in his film. Aparicio is a child of indigenous parents and has no formal acting training, but has a degree in early childhood education. Her breakout performance in Roma has garnered her an Academy Award nomination. But she is not the only member of the cast who is not a veteran actor. Neither Grediaga, Garcia nor Mendoza has any previous acting credits, and Guerrero has only a single television role prior to Roma. Only de Tavira (also nominated for an Oscar in the Supporting Actress category) has any significant experience or training in acting.
Cuarón’s tale plays out before a backdrop of political turmoil in Mexico. It’s all about class politics, against which Cleo seems to be insulated by her position: Sofia’s family treats her well, and she has access to good medical care at the hospital where Antonio works. At one point the grandmother Teresa even takes Cleo out shopping for a crib for the baby she’s expecting. But we know that there is a potentially explosive political issue bubbling below the surface having to do with the ownership and use of land. In one early scene the family spends Christmas and New Year’s at the hacienda of some wealthy friends, who discuss in low tones (under the music of “Jesus Christ, Superstar”) the land acquisitions that seem to be making them richer, and the disputes they are having with poorer folk in the neighborhood over those land deals. Meanwhile Adela tells Cleo that Cleo’s mother’s is losing her own land in her native village.
All of this tends to remain in the background, while the personal lives of Cleo and Sofia take center stage. In a scene very early in the film, when Antonio drives away to his Quebec conference, Sofia stands in the street in front of their house gazing despondently after him, completely oblivious of a military-type parade that passes her in the street. It’s an image of the way Cuarón sees his early life in relation to the politics of the time. There is a scene depicting a large group in paramilitary training, in which we see where Fermín is getting his martial arts instruction (where a chance reference to an “American” trainer may be a very obscure allusion to CIA involvement). And violent politics do encroach into one scene: This is Cuarón’s depiction of the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, during which government soldiers and paramilitary groups killed 120 student protestors at a demonstration during the Corpus Christi festival on June 10, pursuing and murdering the students in places they had hidden for refuge. In Cuarón’s film, one of those places is a furniture store, in which Cleo witnesses Fermín’s involvement in the atrocity.
There are a number of haunting images in the film, notably one during a fire in the forest near the hacienda on New Year’s, when a lone figure counts down the last seconds of the old year and then sings a Norwegian (!) lullaby while in the background everyone else is frantically trying to put out the fire; and a devastating scene near the end of the film when Cleo is being attended after giving birth while medical personnel frantically work on her newborn in the background. These scenes in glorious black and white demonstrate why Cuarón is Oscar nominated for his cinematography (he is also nominated for directing and for original screenplay).
This is an important film and one that I recommend. Despite its many accolades, though, it’s not perfect: Many may find it slow moving. Many may find Cleo herself uninteresting—she says very little and is essentially stoic through most of the film, so it’s difficult to see what is happening in her head. And you may become annoyed at not knowing anything about the political situation that frames the film, especially since Cuarón does little to explain it. For these reasons the film is far more the darling of the critics than of the general movie-going populace. But as an evocation of the memory of a specific place and time, it is remarkable—and in a year when there is no great English-speaking juggernaut set to dominate the Oscars, this could be the year that a film has a shot to win both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture Oscars. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.
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