With this Roma, writer and director Alfonso Cuarón delves into his own childhood in Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970 and 1971. Not only did Cuarón write and direct the film, he was also the cinematographer and the editor, with Adam Gough.
Though this was an extremely personal project, with Cuarón handling each and every detail — even trying to find doppelganger actors to play the parts of family and acquaintances — it doesn’t come off as a memoirist’s film. There is no focus on the point of view or even the experience of any one of the film’s four children, one of whom, we presume, is a young Cuarón. Instead, though the film captures many intimate, painful moments, the camera remains detached and distant, though never uninterested; this made me as a viewer feel like a ghostly presence, unable to get too close, certainly unable to participate in the past.
For some this is a failing; for me this was a brilliant decision that led to insights I wouldn’t have had if the film were different. Cuarón has stated that he was not trying to make a nostalgic or subjective picture about the past. He uses the word objective. Rather as he looks back he is exploring memory. To accomplish the “objective” perspective as well as the feel of memory, he uses a bunch of wide shots and shot the film digitally at 65 mm, which means the film has no grain (and which Cuarón admits is sacrilegious), Cuarón figuring that with grain the film would have the look of a kind of historical document. I think he’s right, and in making these decisions he made a powerful film that is intimate and enigmatic, and one that ultimately pays loving homage to unity, however fleeting, however imbalanced.
Beyond all of that, the film is visually arresting from its long opening shot when we see a sharp, beautiful shot of a tiled floor, which is eventually covered in soapy water that flows back and forth.
When the water clears a bit, we see the sky reflected, an airplane skimming the surface. The lighting and shades playing in the water are beautiful.
After a couple of minutes of this (Cuarón teaches us from the beginning to be patient as we watch), the camera pans up and we meet the central figure of the film — the central figure in this memory — Cleo, an indigenous domestic servant from Oaxaca, approximately 300 miles away, serving a family in an affluent Mexico City home. She is cleaning the floor of the gated driveway. At this particular moment, the floor shines and looks spotless. This won’t last. We will soon see that keeping the floor clean is futile: the large dog leaves its remains all over the tile. And we’ll also see the husband/father Antonio return home and work hard to park his wide Ford Galaxy in the narrow space.
Antonio’s cumbersome arrival is anxiously awaited by the whole household, made up of his wife Sofía, and his four young children. However, it’s clear the father has other priorities, and Cuarón captures them wonderfully as Antonio cares for his car while brutalizing the space, ignoring the driveway’s design and dimension and the endless work that goes into keeping it even momentarily clean and inviting. Antonio, we’ll see (and he won’t be the only one), is not there to comfort or support, but only to use and resent that delicate space.
Slowly the film unfolds to show us this domestic scene. We watch as Cleo cleans and engages with the family.
Importantly, the distance and her role and the dismissive and sometimes cruel attitude of the family toward Cleo is acknowledged in the film. In other words, this memory is more fully aware of the inequality and of Cleo’s own independent life. As another knock against the film, I’ve heard people complain that Cuarón is speaking for this indigenous domestic servant or exploiting her life, praising her as a saint where he has no right. I don’t feel that way, though. I think it is respectful and gracious, and some of the film’s distance can be explained because Cleo remains a mystery to that camera. I don’t think he attempts to speak for her or to put her in a box, even if that happened in the past.
Cleo’s private life is portrayed in the film, though the children like Cuarón wouldn’t have known at the time, due to their age, their preoccupation with their own life, and the belief that Cleo was there for them and only them.
We go from small moments in the home to larger communal moments, like a fire on New Year’s Eve at the turn from 1970 to 1971. This is a good moment to show how busy this film is. Cuarón packs the frames with people and things. As in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, we could spend several viewings paying attention to different people moving about the frame.
. . . that wonderfully wide frame. While it’s not the reason I think Roma is as great as it is, it’s impossible not to mention the gorgeous photography which gives us glimpses of so many distinct moments and memories. Here are a few, presented without context, though it will be clear that this film contains some tragic moments from 1971.
Roma comes together beautifully at the end with a softly spoken statement about compassion. The relationships are not always perfect, but there are unifying moments that are life-sustaining.
Since the Oscars were just the other day, and I’m feeling strangely positive towards them for the first time in decades, let’s look at how Roma fared just one year ago. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award though this was her debut film and she was not a professional actress. Marina de Tavira plays Sofía and was also nominated. Cuarón won for Best Director and Best Cinematography. The film also won Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for Best Picture. It was thought that it could have a shot at Best Picture, but of course the Academy wouldn’t give that prize to a film in a foreign language, particularly if that film won Best Foreign Language Film . . . until just one year later with Parasite.
The Criterion Collection Edition of Roma
Because this film is, for most of you I assume, readily available on Netflix, I want to talk about the Blu-ray edition released today by The Criterion Collection, so you can get an idea whether it’s something you’re interested in having for yourself. As a quick preview, if you want the best home viewing experience, this Criterion edition is the way to watch Roma. If this release is any indication of the quality of work Criterion will put into releases of Netflix films, then I’m excited to see what else comes in the future.
First things first: you can feel the care Criterion put into this release simply by hefting the Blu-ray package (the DVD release is, I believe, quite different) — it’s quite heavy! Inside the cardboard digipak, besides the disc itself, is a 108-page booklet that is really nice to hold and read, containing essays by Valeria Luiselli, Enrique Krauze, Aurelio Asiain, and production designer Eugenio Caballero.
Next, even though it is not a 4K UHD Blu-ray (which would have been very nice), and you can stream the film in 4K, this edition looks better than anything I’ve seen streaming 4K from Netflix. The image is crisp, clean, and there are none of the streaming artifacts that are better or worse depending on your connection. The primary soundtrack on this release keeps the original Dolby Atmos mix that Cuarón used, so you’re not losing anything there and, if your Netflix streaming device of choice does not utlize Dolby Atmos you might be gaining something absolutely amazing.
Lastly, the film comes with quite a few supplementary features, some of which you can view on Netflix (like Road to Roma), and some that I’m excited by (I haven’t seen them all yet) that you cannot (like the documentary on how Cuarón took this film to the rural areas of Mexico, where theaters weren’t interested in showing it).
Honestly, while I like having physical copies of great movies, I was skeptical that Criterion could make it worthwhile to purchase something like Roma on blu-ray. Now, though, I’m very excited for future work they do with Netflix, and I’ve still got a few things on this disc to enjoy before I’ve exhausted its contents.