Updated: Feb 6, 2019
'This fascinating article is written by Miya Treadwell, an MA Film and Literature student at the University of York. In it, she explores wider meanings and interrelations in Alfonso Cuaron's 'latest masterpiece', Roma. The drama is set in 1970s Mexico City and 'delivers a vivid, emotional portrait of a domestic worker's journey set against domestic and political turmoil in 1970s Mexico' (source, Netflix).
Roma, Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s latest masterpiece
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix 2018)
In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a deeply personal, emotional and alluring introspection into the complexity of ordinary life. Based on Cuarón’s upbringing with a family maid, Libo, the semi-autobiographical film chronicles the life of domestic worker Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio) juxtaposed against the household drama of her employers. Set in the neighborhood of Colonia Roma in 1970s Mexico City, the feminist narrative illuminates a lack of agency and the necessity of perseverance that resonates and transverses barriers of language, class, gender, and race.
Dynamically shot by Cuarón in a dreamy black and white, the images of Roma are in a word: gorgeous. The cinematography also creates a documentary aesthetic reminiscent of the observational style of the 1960s and 1970s. This voyeuristic element is conveyed by Cuarón’s (as the film’s cinematographer and co-editor) engaging use of scenic pans, engrossing wide shots, and detailed close-ups. Lingering sequences of Mexico City's streetscape as well as Mexico's rural and beach areas further the documentary aesthetic and gives the illusion that these events are happening in real time. Other sequences such as Cuarón's staging of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre- a deadly clash between student protesters and police forces during Mexico’s Dirty War where dozens of people were killed - reveal the immense scale and technicality of the production. The viewer is essentially placed in a position of pure observation as the plot unfolds, a position similar to Cleo who earnestly watches those around her and rarely says a word. The film in its entirety is relatively quiet and instead focuses on ambient sounds, allowing Cleo’s characterization to exist in a mode of contemplative silence while amplifying moments of intense conflict.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the tone with a close-up shot of diamond shape tiles. They begin to be repeatedly washed over by water as the camera zooms out to show Cleo cleaning a tiled driveway. The camera follows her, from a wide shot distance, throughout the house as she completes her work. With this behind-the-scenes access, the viewer becomes a fly on the wall and witnesses the parallel struggles that connect Cleo and her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira).
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix 2018)
Cleo is largely responsible for the four boisterous children of the household as a divide grows between Sofia and her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Cleo’s intimate attachment to the family is evident when she adoringly puts the children to bed with sweet lullabies and exchanges of “I love you.” Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García), the other domestic worker in the home, are generally treated well but the potential to be deemed or chastised constantly looms. A representation of a rigid social hierarchy based on class and race. Cleo and Adela are of Mesoamerican indigenous descent and from impoverished backgrounds. They express this state of duality by switching between speaking in Mexican Spanish and Mixtec, an indigenous dialect. Cleo is dating Fermín and at first glance, it appears to be a loving relationship until she discloses she has missed her period. In the darkness and intimacy of a movie theater, Cleo shares with Fermín her suspicion that she might be pregnant and he then makes a quick exit to the bathroom. Shot from behind the couple, the viewer is dropped directly into the seats of the theater as the realisation that Fermín has cut and run begins to sink in. The movie theater plays a curious role throughout the film, relating its influence on Cuarón during his childhood. The theater is first introduced with a low angle shot of the grand marquee sign,Metropólitan (an actual historic cultural site in Mexico City), and a crowd of street vendors surrounding the entrance. In another sequence, Cleo takes the children along with their grandmother Teresa to see Marooned, John Sturges’ 1969 sci-fi space odyssey about three astronauts stranded in space. Sound familiar? No doubt an inspiration for Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Gravity.
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix 2018)
Meanwhile, the marriage between her employers Sofia and Antonio continues to fracture with his long business trips to Canada being exposed as a cover up for an affair. Nonetheless, Sofía attempts to maintain Antonio’s image in the eyes of their children by encouraging them to write letters to their absent father about how much they love and miss him. Breaking the news of their inevitable separation is left to Sofía. She puts on a brave face for her family, but the extent of her anguish escapes through tearful, closeted conversations on the phone and her destruction of Antonio’s Ford Galaxie. In a drunken statement to Cleo, Sofia speaks the line that cements the feminism encoded within the narrative. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” “No importa lo que te digan, siempre estamos solas.”Although each is abandoned by their partner, both women persevere through grief and anger because there is no other option. Cleo's experience during her pregnancy and childbirth brings grappling humanity to the topic of women's reproductive rights and restrictive social influences. Sofia's journey to becoming a single mother of four and the immensity of the sacrifices she will have to make to support her family, even as a highly educated and professional woman, brings to mind issues of equal pay and the limitations placed on women in the workforce. In the end, after episodes of loss and trauma, Cleo and Sofia craft a new understanding of family and womanhood.
In this era of #MeToo, Roma evokes a watershed moment of realization for the struggles women endure in a society dominated by patriarchal hierarchy, stagnant socioeconomic classes, and constructions of race. Anchored by Aparicio’s incredibly honest and stoic performance, Romaintuitively converges with the present cultural climate to expand Cuarón’s oeuvre of complex and layered female characters.
The film has had its share of controversy as a result of its production and distribution by Netflix, advancing the streaming giant’s pursuit of film industry prestige. The digital platform recently became the first of its kind to join the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), making space for other online media brands (Amazon, Hulu). Even Cuarón took issue with Netflixbecause of the initial inclusion of Iberian Spanish subtitles for the Mexican Spanish feature. Whether or not you believe a film with Roma’s acclaim should be seen in a proper theater or agree with the infiltration of Netflixamong the big studios of Hollywood, the work itself is undeniable. With 10 Oscar nominations to potentially add to a growing list of awards and recognition, Roma could absolutely steal the show and sweep across the major categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.
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Jones, Sam. “Alfonso Cuarón Condemns Spanish Subtitles on Roma.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jan/09/alfonso-cuaron-condemns-netflix-over-roma-subtitles.
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