I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma as part of an event for Latin Awareness Month, here in Toronto. I’d felt remiss, not having seen the film which dominated the recent Academy Awards, not to mention winning various other awards. I’m a big fan of his movie Gravity (2013) which I think is the best 3D film I’ve ever seen, despite not generally being a fan of 3D films. It had been five years since Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, before Roma hit the screens and was available for streaming on Netflix, so this is not a director who just dishes out films. His film before Gravity was Children of Men, starring Clive Owen, which came out in 2006 so there was a seven year gap between it and Gravity.
I confess that I have not seen any of Cuaron’s films prior to Children of Men but it is a pretty diverse slate with at least a few years between each one (Great Expectations, Y Tu Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, etc.). I did not really want to see most of those films – some seemed like studio projects – the late great John Harkness, a Toronto movie critic, reviewed Great Expectations and said it bore as much resemblance to the source material as horse shit does to oatmeal – and they did not seem particularly interesting to me. Children of Men was at least a bit more unique and interesting even if I was not as moved by it as others were. Gravity, on the other hand, with its very tight and dynamic plot, breathtaking cinematography and special effects, and focused narrative on the will to survive, blew me away.
Roma is nothing like Gravity. The only similarity that I can see is that both films center on the plight of women. However, even this is fairly different in terms of the approaches. Gravity has Sandra Bullock, a high profile actress, in a series of action scenes, fighting for her life. Roma features two women in Mexico City circa 1970 over about a year as they struggle with the various obstacles and disappointments in their lives. One of the women is Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio (in her first ever role) – a young indigenous housekeeper/servant living with another female servant in a middle class house. The other woman is Sofia, the wife/mother living in that household, and is played by Marina de Tavira.
The title of the film comes from the neighbourhood in which the house is set (Colonia Roma). This is where Cuaron lived himself as a child and filming took place in the house literally across the street from where he lived. The house is a large compound, housing the two servants, the family of Sofia and her husband Antonio and their four children as well as Sofia’s mother, Teresa. There are many scenes of Antonio and later Sofia slowly and carefully driving a car into the gated household before the iron gate is shut. The film is shot in black and white, lovingly recreating the period detail of the era which it captures.
The person who introduced the film at the screening that I attended said that it was a film which had many fans but also many detractors and I can see why. The film is very slow for the most part, tracking the mundane incidents in the lives of those living in the household. Besides being shot in black and white, Cuaron uses long takes in which a stationary camera swivels and pans while mundane conversation and activity ensues. As such, it doesn’t build up the dramatic tension or narrative rhythm we might come to expect from a drama. It is almost mannered and laborious.
Tensions sizzle underneath the surface though. Sofia and her husband Antonio are growing apart or have already grown apart – he’s a doctor who often takes extended mysterious research trips (it comes as no surprise later on that he has a mistress) – and the children (who have their own differentiated personalities) don’t know about the alienation between their parents. Cleo gets involved with a young man who seems passionate about her but leaves her stranded once she realizes she is pregnant. From what we can glean, this is her first relationship. Gravity, despite its singular focus on Sandra Bullock, was also made memorable by the resourceful presence of George Clooney’s character, whose memory helps Bullock even after he’s dead. In Roma, the men are deadbeats and worse: they are much the source of trouble and complications and difficulties in the women’s lives. The difficulties swim below the surface, occasionally bobbing up in terms of financial difficulties for Sofia or the complications of carrying a child to term for Cleo. Certain events, like a riot in which protesters are massacred, place the film securely in Cuaron’s childhood.
It’s hard to say anything definitive about the film one way or another. I ultimately liked it, although I don’t know if I’ll come to like it more in time or whether I will simply forget it. It’s not a film like Gravity which I want to watch again and again, although to be fair, it’s not intended to be a film like Gravity to begin with. It’s got a very different style and from what I understand, took a long time to develop. It seems created and curated so strongly towards evoking a time from the director’s childhood that I wonder if only people from that region and that time might be the true audience for the film. Though it obviously sympathizes with its female characters and their plight, those struggles seem almost incidental or secondary to the evocative recreation of their milieu. Perhaps that is the accomplishment of the film: to create a style that mimics the quotidian pattern of everyday life and its struggles. Or perhaps the film just did not have adequate competition? The other film that had a raft of nominations at the Academy Awards was The Favorite and it didn’t do as well.
I hope it’s not too many years until Cuaron next releases a project. He’s doing one thing correctly and that is picking and developing projects that are exactly what he wants to do, and spending the time and effort to develop and work on them. He seems to pick different genres and themes and seems to employ different styles, although long takes and camera pans seem to be a favourite technique. It goes without saying but that’s ultimately what filmmakers should be doing (focusing on the projects they really want to make) in order to produce their best work.