WHAT A MASTERPIECE of a movie this is! The story’s set in Mexico City (the area known as Roma, hence the title) just as 1970 turns into 1971…just as Mexico is transformed from a world of innocence to one of darkness.
The protagonist is Cleo, a young maid (a “muchacha”) in a fairly well off household. Cleo (along with another maid) performs more than the necessary domestic tasks, of cleaning and caring for the house. She’s the loving helpmeet to the four kids (waking them with tender kisses, escorting them to school, protecting them from harm, even sharing family TV viewing time with them). She’s a loved and integral part of the small nuclear family unit (mom, dad, the kids, the granny and the yapping dog). To the casual viewer, it’s an idyllic set up.
The dialogue, the locations, the interpersonal relations and the stunning acting (especially that of the non actor, Yalitza Aparizio as Cleo) have a casual, natural authenticity about them. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También) immerses us in a Mexico that from corner to corner of the screen, is tangibly real.
He offers us two worlds. The world of the family exists behind heavy metal gates (so typical of Mexican homes). They both protect and close off the increasingly troubled world (of student protests and anger) without. This is a world that seems as happily chaotic as the other is chaotically threatening.
But the times, they are a changing. The pleasant, familial domesticity of the world of the home, with its traditional and accepted power structure (where the woman is boss of the household even as the man is boss of the family), is in flux. The underpinnings of order – marital fidelity, the male as breadwinner, the committedness of young lovers – has crumbled. Both Sra. Sofia, the wife (Marina de Tavira), and Cleo – jilted women both- must learn how to cope with a new order; one of deceptions, danger and self reliance.
For those metal gates offer false protection. Cleo falls for Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) a charming young man who turns out to belong to los Halcones (the Falcons), a government backed, sinister para-military group. And thus, do the troubles without infect the calm within. In one powerful scene, this idea is underlined when Cleo and Teresa, the grandmother, are in a furniture store buying a cot. All is calm within, but outside, all hell is breaking loose. This is the student riots (terrifyingly realised by Cuarón in scenes of confusion, panic, disbelief and fear) that took place in Mexico in 1971. Hundreds of students were massacred by this same para-military group. Cleo and Teresa look on horrified as the Falcons burst into the furniture shop and shoot down a student hiding there.
These years, from 1968 – 1971 were Mexico’s 9/11 moments. In Roma, it is the definitive moment of transformation when both the fictional characters of the story and the real world of Mexico are changed – scarred – forever.
But, Cuarón seems to suggest, people, like countries survive. The family, shorn of its breadwinner, learn how to pull together even more tightly; they battle the elements and survive; they learn, as whole societies do, how to lean on each other to weather the horrible present and survive with the hope of a better future.
Apart from his crisp, beautifully shot black and white cinematography, Cuarón’s directing tricks delivers a real world feel that’s rare in the business. (Apparently for instance, he only showed the actors their lines just before each days’ filming to capture genuine feelings of surprise and shock free from actorly artifice; one traumatic hospital scene was shot in one take with all real hospital attendants and doctors for maximum authenticity.)
Roma is another big winner for Netflix.
For my money, it’s the movie of the year.
ROMA. Director, writer, cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón. With: Yalitza Aparazio, Marina de Tavira, Verónica García. Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero (A Monster Calls)