Thursday, 7 May 2020

Movie review: Roma, dir Alfonso Cuaron (2018)

Cuaron’s poetic vision is that of a master. His movie perhaps should have been titled – like something out of Boccaccio or Chaucer – “the maid’s tale”. Cleo, the maid (or housekeeper; I’m not sure of what such a person would be called in Mexico, where the movie is set) has a simple life though a sense of impending disaster dogs her. The story takes place during a few months prior to and following New Year of 1970/71.

The use of black and white lends the film an air of nostalgia but it also has about it the air of an arthouse movie. This is a combination that sets over the whole enterprise a sorrowful cast, as though you were watching a silent film from a forgotten era. Anyone who has been into an arthouse movie house and has watched one of the classics of the genre will understand what this means. You feel like you are separate from reality in a way that watching a contemporary action flic in a multiplex cannot engender. Watching ‘Roma’ you are set firmly apart from the day-to-day routine of ordinary life, encased in a secure blanket of nostalgia that is combined, in a fashion only going to the cinema can produce, with a sense of adventure.

The transformative nature of cinema is different from that of most other artforms. With theatre and movies you can experience the whole in a couple of hours but they can involve complex narratives having many disparate elements. A novel, on the other hand, which has the same ability to develop character and to elaborate plot, will normally take at least a few days to complete.

What follows contains a few minor spoilers though I don’t give away the ending or, even, detail the plot.

Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, who lives and works in a household supervised by mother-of-four Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira). The oldest child, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), is aged about 13 years. Cleo’s work includes cleaning, serving meals, answering the phone, getting the children out of bed in the morning, putting them to bed at night, and (amusingly) holding the dog (Borras) when someone wants to bring one of the family’s cars – a huge and unwieldy US sedan, called a Galaxy, and a VW Beetle – into the driveway, which accesses the street through a gate that is made of an iron grille having a geometrical design, made semi-transparent by the use of plastic or glass (it’s not clear which) in its construction. The driveway and the gate are recurring leitmotifs that add drama at different times; other architectural elements are also used in this way (see below).

The cinematography is brilliant. The film has some long, sweeping shots used to show Cleo going about her business. Some shots are static and many are wide-angle – resembling large-format black-and-white still photography – to allow the viewer to see things happening in a sequence. In one shot a street scene is shown with, in the centre of the frame, a gate set in a wall. A woman walks across the road in front of the wall; she is heading toward the upper left-hand corner of the frame. Then a car drives up from the right-hand side of the frame, and stops at the gate. The car’s horn sounds, the gate opens, and the car drives into the compound as other people move about on the roadway. There are some shops shown in the frame as well, but they are off-centre and are not prominent.

For her part, Cleo has a generous heart and is good with the children, one of whom – he is aged about seven years and his name is Pepe (Marco Graf) – has a vivid imagination and talks about things that seem incongruous until you see how they connect with other things shown in the film. When Pepe says he remembers what he was in a previous life (a fighter pilot) you are puzzled but then, in a scene set in a cinema, the movie on the screen has WWII fighter planes in it.

This scene links, in turn, with a scene on a sports field that takes place one day when Cleo goes in search of boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) where he lives. In this scene, there is a man named Professor Zovek (played by pro-wrestler “Latin Lover”) who is dressed, incongruously, like a superhero; Zovek had been part of a show broadcast on TV, as we saw in a restaurant one day when Cleo went out with Adela (Nancy García), a maid in Cleo’s home. The two were meeting their boyfriends and planned to go to a movie that afternoon.

For the viewer, the places we are taken to are magical but are also concrete. The movie is of a time and place – I’ve already mentioned the feeling of nostalgia the director, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to produce in the viewer – but its messages are universal. The indigenous (Cleo and Adela) and the European (Sra. Sofia and Sr. Antonio, played by Fernando Grediaga) are figured in a striking fashion. The scene were Cleo is talking with a doctor (Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano) is amazing, and you can hardly credit the people involved with acting; it seems to be real life. This scene might have been taken from a daytime soap opera. In another scene, Cleo loses sight of Toño in a crowd on a city street and must go running after him. This scene has the look and feel of a medieval quest.

Part of the fire scene reminded me of the movies of ‘80s director Peter Greenaway. When a man (Kjartan Halvorsen) in this scene sings, it is cryptic, unexpected, and stagey in the extreme, putting you in mind of a play in a theatre where a herald might appear to announce some pressing news that can change the direction the narrative takes. Cuaron also uses stairs in interesting ways: in one scene there is a stairway going down, and in another scene there is a stairway going up. In both Cleo uses the structure to make a journey to another place.

The family for whom she works seems always to be fighting while Cleo is always busy; as well as dealing with their dramas, she boldly tackles her own dramas with Fermin. Universals are embodied in the everyday, and the movie could be seen, if you were inclined to look for precedents, as the next episode following on from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ (1611).

Caliban and Prospero refigured as Cleo and Sra. Sofia. The politics that define their relationship are complex and nuanced; the wife decides how Cleo relates to other members of the family, and has the power to shape Cleo’s future. But with ‘Roma’ the artefact is immutable and endlessly reproducible rather than, as with the case of a performance of Shakespeare’s play, contingent on a thousand independent decisions involving, for each production, different choices in casting, costumes, stage sets, lighting, and directing. 

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