Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” starts off with a shot of a tiled floor. Birds are chirping in the background, opening credits fade in and out, and then you hear water being poured onto the ground. The water enters the frame and runs over the tile to reflect the sky above as a plane flies over. The water flows in a slow cyclical way that conjures up images of the ocean.
“Roma” is a film about reflection and memory.
“Roma” is written, produced, directed, shot and edited by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a maid who works for a middle-class family in Mexico City. The story takes place in the early 1970’s in which Cleo and the matriarch of the family deal with similarly unreliable men in their lives. The backdrop of the film is the massive political upheavals in Mexico, most notably the massacre of Corpus Christi.
It is a personal story for Cuarón and is based off of his own childhood. The movie is in fact dedicated to his family’s maid, Liboria Rodríguez.
During The Hollywood Reporter Directors Roundtable, Cuarón stated that he protected the script and only told his actors what they would be doing the day of filming. This gave the actors a sense of immediacy. Just like in real life, they didn’t know what was ahead of them. They just had to deal with what was happening in the moment.
Cuarón also shot the film in chronological order. This allowed the actors to build their characters in parallel with the script.
The film was shot on location in the titular Mexico City district of Roma Sur and in black & white 70mm film. The cinematography is gorgeous, and it is a shame that it did not have a wide theatrical release. One positive of Netflix distributing the film is that only an internet connection and a Netflix subscription is needed to watch.
The camera work remains incredibly passive, keeping its distance in grand wide shots that take in the whole landscape. The film feels more like a mural than a portrait. Cuarón is able to capture the Corpus Christi massacre on a giant scale with hundreds of extras while also making the tragedy intimate by juxtaposing the scenes with a woman’s water breaking.
Water is an important motif in the film with the pregnancy, the washing of the floors, and a dangerous third-act sequence at the ocean that plays out in a single take and in real time.
During the THR roundtable discussion, “BlacKkKlansman” director Spike Lee asked Cuarón what would have happened if something went wrong and the actors would have drowned.
Cuarón simply said, “I would have had a different ending.”
Last Sunday, “Green Book” took home Best Picture. While the story of two men from different backgrounds learning to overcome their prejudices is important for this politically divisive time, the film leaves a lot to be desired.
The story wraps up too easily and claiming that racist tendencies can be solved over the span of a road trip is reductive.
It would be incredibly important if a film from Mexico was labeled as the Best Picture of 2018 because of how negatively the country is perceived today in America.
“Roma” does not shout its message of compassion from the rooftops, but looks you in the eyes and asks you to step outside of your comfort zone, read the subtitles, and experience a life unlike your own.