The Cine Latino Film Festival makes its inaugural debut in Perth with the latest film of one of Mexico’s greatest film visionaries, Alfonso Cuarón. Known for his critically acclaimed works Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón takes us on a semi-autobiographical slice-of-life journey in Roma. Hot on the heels of the international festival circuit and with a wider international release soon to follow, why is everyone stopping to admire this dramatic black and white tale?
The film opens with a slowly flooding floor of semi-soapy water, reminiscent of seafoam and the gentle rise and fall of the tide. The way the water repeatedly floods the screen is unnerving and rhythmic. We find ourselves bearing witness to the protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) washing the tiled floor, while caged birds and the excitable family dog punctuate the bleakness of the household she works for.
For most of the film there’s a focused intent on how Cleo and the environments she enters are positioned. Rather than letting the camera follow behind her laboriously, we see numerous long, slow camera shots panning from afar. As Cleo cleans and runs errands, her movements across the scene are what draws our eye to her—not the camera movements. The effect is akin to a fly on a wall or even a young child seated across the room, viewing things intently. Could this effect be a homage to the viewpoint Cuarón remembered from his own childhood?
In addition to the camera work, there are several notable creative decisions in the story and film direction that stand out. The plane crash at the cinema and a celebratory toast gone wrong both feel like a nuanced foreshadowing of the unfortunate circumstances that follow shortly after. In the face of most of her struggles, Cleo maintains a moderate and polite demeanor, seldom showing disdain. It seems Cuarón wished to bury her pain under all of these discretions, building it up throughout the film and then releasing it in two crucial moments: her distressing delivery at the hospital and her guilt-ridden revelation at the beach. These pivotal moments are shown in long, focused takes—the viewer is pulled into these hurtful catharses with nowhere else to turn.
The beach scene also showcases the recurrent water motif, perhaps serving as metaphor for life, omnipresent and evocative in its power. A fun day at the beach goes awry as the ferocious tide engulfs Cleo and two of the children, rushing dangerously and obscuring our view with angry torrents of water, interspersed with the sound of panicked drowning.
The long steady shot used is distressing but deeply indicative of the care and love that Cleo has for the children who aren’t even her own. While the children seldom feature in the film, it is important to note the close relationship Cleo has with them; she lovingly approaches their beds, sings and dresses them; she gently opens their runny eggs for breakfast and cares for the elderly grandmother like a surrogate daughter. She is a loved member of the household, but not the expected focal point.
With respect to the setting of this tale, the sheer scale and set design is remarkable. Antique cars parked aside European inspired interiors and lavish celebrations at a bustling hacienda are quietly compared to dimly lit maids quarters and the buzzing local neighbourhood Taqueria. There’s a real showcase of what Mexico once was to both the rich and poor, captured no better than by the inclusion of two young boys playing Spacemen—one in the forest playground of the rich, and the second in the rural town of Cleo’s missing lover.
A real sense of dimension and immersiveness is achieved with the soundtrack and lighting choices, bolstered by the light and shadows of the film. It does pose the question, however: what was Cuarón’s rationale for Roma to be shown entirely in black and white? Several theories ranging from a post-production practicality, to an artistic method of disbelief suspension come to mind. But my personal take is that by removing the colour, it forces the viewer to hone in on Cleo’s plight. Alternatively, it could be a symbolic representation of the mood and fate of the characters—a washed out atmosphere viewed through tinted glasses.
Regardless, there’s a tempo running throughout the film—vignettes that showcase the joyous highs and gloomy lows of this family, with Cleo at the centre of it all. Once the dust has all settled and the family return home, the house is dramatically different after the departure of Sofia’s husband—the outcome of which is clearly illustrated through slow wide pans and missing furniture. The children move about to new rooms, but Cleo goes about her duties just as before. Cleo demonstrates humility and restraint in her outward expression and is unwavering in her obligations; her characterisation is nothing but admirable.
The film ends much like it began, with wistful gleaning from afar. A beautifully shot and scored film, Roma delivers a visually stunning heartbreak of people’s lives unfulfilled, but moving ever forward. Cuaron skillfully draws you into a unique and intimate creation: an emotionally-charged showcase where, despite the inevitable changes and challenges in life, there’s a rhythm that will always continue.
If you missed the Cine Latino Film Festival, you can watch Roma on Netflix now.