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Non-Review Review: Roma

There’s a lyrical beauty to Roma, a decidedly intimate and personal project for director Alfonso Cuarón following on from his triptych of more mainstream fare.

Roma is a very different beast from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity. It is much smaller in scale, focusing on the life of a maid who works for a slightly-above-middle-class family in early seventies Mexico city. Shot in black and white, often favouring quiet scenes and still shots, there is an observational aspect to most of Roma, a sense in which the movie very gently and very elegantly watches life unfold in slow motion without any sense of hurry or panic. For most of its runtime, Roma is content to just be.

This is not a surprise. After all, Cuarón has been candid about how much of the film is drawn from his own childhood. Even without that outside knowledge creeping in, Roma seems to tacitly acknowledge it in the central role that the cinema plays in the story. At one point, the young children take a trip to the picturehouse to see the space thriller Marooned, with Cuarón making a point to showcase a sequence that evokes his own work in Gravity. As much as this is a story about a young woman who works as a maid to a privileged Mexican family, it is undoubtedly filtered through the lens of childhood.

Although nominally set against the backdrop of early seventies Mexico, Roma repeatedly suggests that the larger world is but the echo chamber for the uncertainty and tumult within a family unit; when earthquakes happen and revolutionaries march, they are simply expressions of more intimate traumas and challenges facing these characters. In the world of Roma, it is as below as above, reflecting the way in which a child might see the outside world as nothing more than an extrapolation of the home life that they know so well.

This lends Roma an almost magical quality. Although the film and its characters are complex and developed, there is something poetic in the way in which Cuarón chooses to tell this particular tale. Cuarón never rushes or hurries his characters, instead giving them room to breath. He finds a zen-like calm in the stability of the everyday, the safety of routine against the backdrop of larger anxieties and uncertainties. The characters in Roma repeatedly navigate life-changing events, but underscored with a childlike certainty that they can survive them.

Roma is a genuinely moving piece of cinema.

Roma consciously and repeatedly evokes the hazy lens of memory. The beautiful black and white cinematography evokes a world that is long lost, in both a literal and a personal sense. As Roma acknowledges, but never really explores, the film is set against the backdrop of political upheaval in Mexico. The specifics are never articulated, beyond clashes between students and more reactionary forces, the pomp of military ceremony and the brutality of nationalist violence. Then again, the specifics are largely irrelevant.

The details of this tumult are outlined in dialogue that is often obscured. Sometimes it is spoken by characters who are off-screen, which makes it difficult to properly capture that sense of distance when the dialogue is subtitles. More often, the audience comes into conversations about such things as they are winding down, with little context of clarity. Even when these conversations are heard, the camera is often preoccupied at capturing the details of the surroundings rather than focusing on the characters talking.

This communicates a number of things very effectively. Most obviously, that the specific details of this political revolution are of no immediate interest to the story being told. These details undoubtedly concern the upper middle class adults in the story – who are even playfully training with guns and joking anxiously about pending revolutions – but they do not matter to the story itself. This is because Cuarón is filtering the story through the eyes of the child he was at the time, one more interested in staring at shelves of clocks than paying attention to adult fears about social collapse.

Although told through the eyes of a child, Roma centres on a young woman. Cleo is the maid for this family, whose day is spend trying (and often failing) to manage the unfolding chaos of family life. Cleo’s relationship to the family is complicated. She is at once a part of the family, subservient to it, and invisible. An early sequence underscores this, Cleo gently cleaning as the family watches television, happy for the opportunity to take in the television itself, and settling in with the child at the end of the couch. (She does not sit on the couch, but beside it.) However, she is promptly assigned another errand to run.

Roma is the first credit for actor Yalitza Aparicio, and she is remarkable as Cleo. It’s a charming and completely disarming performance, one that skillfully communicates both unarticulated anxiety and an unrecognised strength. Cleo gets surprisingly few lines in Roma, and endures a startling amount of hardship over the course of the film. However, there is a recurring sense that Cleo is drawing upon reserves of strength and character that even she does not realise lie within her. It’s a mesmerising performance, one that anchors the film.

In some ways, the film’s childlike gaze serves to insulate it from some of the potential issues with its portrayal of Cleo as somebody who is at once a member of the family and a servant to it. A more cynical and more mature film would have to navigate the contradictions and tensions in a way that Roma consciously avoids, portraying one of the most wholesome and romanticised depictions of a relationship between homeowners and servants in recent memory. Although there are moments when certain members of the family take out their frustrations on Cleo, these are presented as aberrations, high-stress exceptions.

The intimacy of Roma is reinforced by Cuarón’s directorial choices. Roma is just as slick and confident as any of Cuarón’s films, comfortable with its striking compositions and its masterful long takes. However, there are conscious nods towards the more modest scale of Roma when compared to something like Children of Men and Gravity. However, none of those acknowledgements come at the cost of Cuarón’s craft or technique. This is recognisably the same directorial eye, just applied in a different manner.

Most obviously, while using tracking shots in the city itself, Cuarón consciously minimises camera movement when in and around the house to underscore both the intimacy of the setting (there are few places for the camera to move, after all) and also to reinforce the idea of the home as a place that should be stable and static. A number of long takes within the house find the camera fixed in one spot, simply turning and pivoting to bring certain parts of the space into or out of focus. It is an approach that allows the audience to feel like they are physically standing in the home, observers of life as it unfolds.

There is a charm in the way that the entire world of Roma seems like an extrapolation of the family home. Earthquakes mirror arguments between the parents, the threat of a schism in the family unit. Violent revolution becomes an expression of more personal crises. The film repeatedly underscores the overlap between the intimate and the epic; a marching band that walks through a heartbreaking scene of family dissolution, an intrusion of extra-judicial murder into an otherwise sweet moment that finds two characters at odds with one another standing on opposite sides of a gun.

In contrast, the film finds security and comfort in repetition, in the way that the various characters repeat the same tasks over and over as an act of maintenance. Cleo repeatedly clears the dog excrement from outside the house, but it always builds back up, and she always has to do it again. Cleo is constantly cleaning and tidying, but it is never enough to get the mess under control. Of course, sometimes maintenance is not enough. One recurring motif focuses on the manoeuvring of the family car, a metaphor for the unit itself, constantly and carefully adjusted and aligned while parked.

It takes remarkably grace and skill to execute this approach. Given its childish perspective of admittedly adult concerns and fears, Roma could easily seem trite or cliché. The approach could seem condescending or quaint in the wrong hands, cynically manipulative or crassly simplistic. It is a testament to Cuarón and Aparicio that the film never sacrifices emotional depth or sincerity to this particular perspective. The result is a film that feels like both a fairytale and a biography, but balancing as carefully between those two extremes as the television icon Profesor Zovek.

Roma is a triumph.

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