VOD Review: Roma.
Academy Award winning director Alfonso Caurón is back with another critically lauded drama, Roma, now streaming on Netflix.
Roma is an intricately crafted film, of the type you could teach an entire semester of film studies about. Director Alfonso Caurón is in complete control of his artifact, creating a film that is not just visually striking (as was his Oscar-winning Gravity) but also deeply layered with subtext and symbolism. It reminds one of an Ingmar Bergman film in its subtlety and sophistication, but remains distinctly, personally Caurón’s own. Being such a singular product, it does reveal flaws. Despite these flaws, and in some way because of them, Roma is uniquely striking. I can’t decide if its the best film of the year, or the best film of the decade. It’s that good.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a young Mexican housemaid and nanny working for a wealthy family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. It is 1971, and Mexico is facing social and political tensions that will soon escalate into outrage and violence. Internal tensions between Cleo’s employers are also mounting, and Cleo’s life is further thrown into turmoil when she discovers that she may be pregnant.
The Power of Threes.
Roma gains power in its presentation by using a formula of triplets. There are three layers to the drama: the deeply personal drama of Cleo’s pregnancy, the social drama of Cleo’s role in the family she works and cares for as they experience interior strife, and the societal drama of political upheaval in Mexico. Caurón weaves these layers together intimately, allowing them to reflect and inform each other. They become so intricately linked that commentary on one can be accomplished indirectly by focusing on another.
Images take on symbolic significance by being repeated in triplets. We can gauge how stressful home life has become by comparing three scenes in which Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother of the well-to-do family, parks her car in the narrow alley, each time causing more destruction in her attempts. A marching band takes on sinister and militaristic overtones as we see it repeat. The first and last shot of the film involves an airplane high overheard, giving closure to the proceedings. I’m honestly not quite sure what it symbolized, but I know that Caurón had me so sensitized to tripled imagery that I was nearly frantic that the plane wouldn’t show up in the last fateful minutes of the film.
Alfonso Caurón may be best known to wider audiences for his stunning imagery in Gravity. Roma is equally beautiful, but in a more somber and stately manner. Long sequences, artfully arranged to juxtapose details predominate. Many of the shots look like vintage photographs, as the film is shot in a digital black-and-white format. It can feel aloof, especially in the first hour of the film, but it creates an expectation of reserve that becomes devastatingly effective when the film gets personal. After having seen Cleo on the periphery of what could pass for high-resolution National Geographic photos, it is jarring to see the same clinical detachment in a scene in which she is going through a high-risk delivery.
Having seen several of Caurón’s early student films, I’m aware that he sometimes prefers ambiguous events that evoke a mood rather than traditional storytelling. As stated, that can lead to high-impact scenes because so much of the narrative is audience-constructed. It can also rob the characters of narrative significance or create the air of ambivalence. Like Children of Men, so much of Roma is the story of things happening to a young woman. Rarely are the main female characters given agency. Much of the time Cleo is mute and compliant, a canvas for events and people to cast meaning onto.
Shades of Gray.
Just as we rarely get a glimpse into how Cleo thinks about her situation, we rarely get a glimpse into how the director regards them. Beyond sympathy for Cleo, Caurón isn’t using the events in Roma as a megaphone. The plight of domestic servants, how poor Mexican peasants are habitually displaced by wealthy Gringos and Gringas, the inciting issues that lead to riots and violence, and a host of other issues are presented without comment. It can lead to a disconnect for the audience, as I spent quite some time in the early film not even sure of the period it was taking place in. Some of it may be how personal the narrative is for Caurón; Roma is based on his personal experience growing up in that very neighborhood during the 1970’s, under the care of a housekeeper upon whom Cleo is modeled. He may take for granted that we’d recognize 1970’s Mexico and the people and events it was made up of.
I tended to regard the detachment as a confidence on the part of the filmmakers that audiences don’t need as much hand-holding as some directors seem to think. Martin Scorcese uses many of the same techniques as Caurón in his films, but you always know exactly how he intends you to regard his material. I liked that my experience of Roma was somewhat self-created, and that my reading of it was colored by my own experiences. I know Caurón probably wanted the rich family to be a bit more sympathetic (being modeled, at least in theory, on his own) but I spent quite a lot of the film seeing them as the antagonists. The events and characters are presented for your consideration; if you think some sinners and others saints, it’s perhaps saying more about your beliefs than the director’s.
Even when I am myself ambivalent about aspects of Roma, I regard it as a masterclass in film-making. There are a million details and choices on display in the film, all very clearly arranged by a thoughtful artist. Lighting, film texture, the lack of a score, shot composition, the minimalist dialogue: these are the choices that will rightfully engage critics, historians, and lovers of cinema. The social issues, and the thornier issues about authorial intent will also churn up conversations in those circles. It is not an easy film. I would like to have the faith to say a general audience will find it as rewarding as the specialists will. It certainly is breathtaking in its craft, and strikes one as if seeing a great painting for the first time. You may dispute the merits of the style or subject, but you can’t take away from the technique of the artist. For my money, Roma is a rare film that deserves to be experienced.