“Roma” is the film that is making rounds this year, with high acclaim and big Oscar buzz and for good reason. Alfonso Cuarón outdoes himself with what is a masterstroke of visual and emotional storytelling. At over two hours in length, “Roma” is an engrossing and absolutely striking story that juxtaposes ideas over and over. There’s life and death, the beginning of one marriage while one comes to an end, and so on. Cuarón devotes so much of “Roma” to how much the tale of Cleo is a microcosm to the tidal wave that is life, and we view it through her eyes, as she endures endless pain, but finds solace in the most unlikely sources.
Set in the 1970’s in Mexico City, we meet Cleo a maid and caretaker for a large family living in a large house and complex. She’s devoted to her job and caring for her children, but after being seduced by her boyfriend, she ends up pregnant. Without much options, the family she works for begin taking care of her, especially now that she’s been abandoned by her boyfriend who violently refuses to accept ownership of the unborn baby. As she endures her pregnancy, she begins bearing witness to political violence and riots erupting around her, as well as natural disasters and even the death of her employer’s marriage.
“Roma” begins on a very engaging and beautiful note, as Cuarón sets his focus on a tile floor where water is splashing back and forth. It flows back and forth, in and out with gushing, painting an almost supernatural window in to the outside world painted within the pools of water. Within the water are the sounds of the outside world interrupted by the visual of a plane passing by. It’s a stellar prologue of things to come as Cuarón focuses more about how everything works in harmony with one another. Even more beautiful is that eventually the soapy water Cleo is brushing back and forth within the tiles of her employers’ home begins to eventually sound like waves. Whether intentional or not, it’s very much a huge foreshadowing to the gut wrenching and intense climax. The character is Cleo is most assuredly an indentured servant to her family, beholden to them and loyal to a fault. She has nowhere else to go, but can literally not picture life without them, either.
Cleo seems to take so much harmony in the familiar in her life, using chaos as a means of calming herself, and standing by while life literally unfolds behind her. One subtle scene finds Cleo sitting in her small apartment watching the backyard and listening to the family dog bark incessantly. For one moment he ceases the barking and she seems almost panicked by the notion, until the dog persists. Cuarón side steps the idea of a score, quick cuts, and even color (shot in 65mm black-and-white) to depict something of a panoramic epic story about life unfolding around this woman. Cuarón literally stands back framing wide shots of many sequences as people buzz back and forth, engaging in conversation, all the while panning back and forth gradually to show life flow almost with a startling realism. “Roma” tends to resemble “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” where every single person are living their idea of life in their own moment, almost never acknowledging one another, or soaking in the sense of turmoil.
The only person who can stop and look at the world around her, basically because she has to, is Cleo, as she bears witness to so many events such as political turmoil, violence erupting around her, and even the deterioration of a marriage before her very eyes. For very long she decides to play the spectator, watching in the wings, but life eventually pulls her in to where she has to either act, or risk losing just about everything she holds close to her. Cuarón devotes much of the film to the power Cleo holds, as she’s often a woman whose inner strength is often dismissed in favor of her more nurturing aspect, and Cuarón tends to unveil much of her physical and mental prowess as the narrative moves in to the final set piece. He obviously holds a much greater regard for the perseverance of women, as they’re really the only stable presences in the entire narrative; there’s even a scene of a military combat demonstration where a teacher challenges his male students to stand on one leg with his eyes closed.
None of the men can do it, but most of the women watching in the distance accomplish the task, including Cleo who poses without an inch of hesitation. I loved “Roma” as Cuarón’s narrative is both a stellar and brilliant visual experience and deeply moving tale that ends on a subtle note that speaks waves about Cuarón’s feelings toward his protagonist Cleo and women as a whole.
In Select Theaters and now Streaming on Netflix.