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Roma finds intimacy in the mundane

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2018 (516 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A tender, powerful and deeply personal project from Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También), this semi-autobiographical drama is dedicated to the woman who did much of the work of raising the Mexican filmmaker — not his mother, but the family’s maid.

The story (in Spanish and Mixtec, with subtitles) centres on an upper-middle-class household in 1970s Mexico City, conveyed primarily through the experience of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young Indigenous woman from Oaxaca.

As Cleo deals with a devastating event in her own life, the family — a mother (Marina de Tavira), a father (Fernando Grediaga) and four children — breaks down and then comes back together a little different, and the city around them is traumatized by political violence. Those are the broad stories in Roma, but they are absorbed into the small daily routines of cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

Moving quietly through a year in Cleo’s life and using beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the film is deeply emotional but rigorously unsentimental. In particular, Cuarón delineates the tricky dynamics of the employer-servant relationship, demonstrating that Cleo’s position within the family is both intimate and unequal.

A Netflix production, Roma is streaming while simultaneously being released in theatres. It’s worth seeing the film on the big screen if you can, partly because the "backgrounds" in Cuarón’s works aren’t backgrounds at all. The theatre experience picks up on the complexity of the ambient sound, as well as the tremendous detail and depth of field in Cuarón’s extended sequences — and not just the thronged, complicated crowd scenes, which are extraordinary, but even a seemingly simple scene in which Cleo walks through a silent house, preparing to shut it up for the night.

Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP</p><p>This image released by Netflix shows a scene from the film “Roma,” by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron.</p></p>

Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP

This image released by Netflix shows a scene from the film “Roma,” by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron.

In another sequence, Cleo witnesses the Corpus Christi Massacre — part of Mexico’s Dirty War, in which student protesters were hunted down and killed — from the window of a furniture store. The film doesn’t deal directly with big political events, but you can hear them, in stray phrases, and see them, in passing military parades, and feel them, like the aftershocks of the earthquake that shakes one scene.

Gender politics cut a little closer. The men in Roma are either ineffectual or menacing (or both). Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), Cleo’s sometime boyfriend, demonstrates his machismo through martial arts in two scenes, one vaguely comic and the second heavy with potential violence.

The family’s patriarch is represented by a massive car, a Ford Galaxie, that barely fits into the covered passage that separates their house from the street. We see the car before we see the man, and soon after this brief introduction he leaves, supposedly on a "trip to Quebec" but really because he’s taken up with a younger woman.

Cuarón mostly dodges lengthy dialogue and expository action, and the characters’ emotional struggles are seen only from oblique angles.

At the same time, this is a tremendously intimate film. Aparicio, in her debut performance, is a quietly compelling screen presence, and Cuarón’s unusual attention to the routines that make up domestic life — washing floors, making food, picking up laundry, dealing with the almost constant clamour of young children — connects us to Cleo’s life with a gradual, growing intensity.

We could be lulled into thinking this everyday labour somehow lacks cinematic oomph. But the final scenes, when the drama finally washes over us, make us realize the power was there all along.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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