Reel Time with Joel and Chase
Passion and Beauty Fuel This Personal Journey for Alfonso Cuarón
Rating: R for Graphic Nudity, Some Disturbing Images, and Language
Run Time: 2hr & 15mins
**** (out of ****)
The opening shot is a static one: We look at a stretch of tile floor as the title and credits play over it. Then there is the sound of splashing water, and eventually, the water, sudsy with soap, enters the frame. Someone is washing this stretch of tile, which – we find out – is part of the floor of a garage, and while we eventually turn away from that tile to find the person who is cleaning it, this opening shot sets the tone and pace of Roma in tangible, lingering ways. With this extended shot of our protagonist cleaning this floor, on which so much happens over the course of his story, writer/director/cinematographer/co-editor Alfonso Cuarón is establishing a necessary patience.
First, there is the length of the shot, as well as the events of the following series of shots, in which Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, great in a striking and auspicious debut performance) finishes cleaning the garage floor and diligently goes about the rest of the house to do other chores – pulling the sheets off beds to wash them, later turning lights off and on depending upon what needs to be lit or darkened at night, etc. She and Adela (Nancy García García) are the two maids and, more often than not, babysitters on staff for Sofía (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and their four children – Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demesa).
This is Mexico City in the early 1970s, captured by Cuarón in luminous, black-and-white photography that is often comprised of long takes of great complexity, and this family for whom Cleo works is a broken one. Antonio leaves his wife and children early into the narrative, claiming that research for work is taking him to Quebec. This leaves Sofía to figure things out for her children, though she often arrives home late from her job, teaching biochemistry at a nearby university. Cleo slowly becomes these children’s de facto mother, though she develops her own identity along the way.
She loves movies, and Cuarón gives us a stunning shot from behind Cleo and her date that, like many compositions here, is enough to make one hold his or her breath. She is, we can guess, barely out of her teenage years, which means that company spent with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is often rather discreetly company spent in the nude and in bed. This has predictable consequences, as Cleo discovers that she is pregnant and Fermín flees all responsibility to join a group of aspiring martial artists to introduce a bit of order in a life that, he feels, has become chaotic.
Cuarón isn’t out to tell a traditionally structured story, though. What the filmmaker has provided is an exceptionally delicate and compassionate series of stream-of-consciousness observations that find Cleo in sometimes desperate situations: A family sojourn to a shooting gallery at a forest estate ends with much of the forest on fire. Cleo visits the OB/GYN unit of a hospital just as a small earthquake provides complications for everyone, and later, her labor begins as El Halconazo (a massacre of demonstrating students by soldiers in the Mexican army in June 1971) happens outside a furniture shop.
The sting of tragedy is everywhere one turns in Roma, but by shooting the action in black-and-white and by taking an observational approach with his camera (which often simply makes turns somewhere between 180 and 360 degrees as it observes the characters’ actions), Cuarón distances himself from the opportunity to turn this material into a cheap melodrama. The pieces are there in the story, particularly in a climactic scene set on the beach that nearly turns to tragedy. In lesser hands, such a scene, which ultimately provides emotional closure for Cleo following unthinkable loss, could be construed as an excuse to provide trite characterization. Things are complex in this world, which – with all its chaos and comfort – is undoubtedly the real one.
(Review by Chase Lee)