Roma: an ode to a culture in upheaval

Memories of the past: Roma is Cuarón’s ode to his own childhood and the locality that shaped it.

Memories of the past: Roma is Cuarón’s ode to his own childhood and the locality that shaped it.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A passenger jet is reflected in the wet driveway tiles of a bourgeois Mexican household. A brass band marches through the street. A human-cannonball act lights up a dreary political rally. An excited boy proposes to his girlfriend on the beach. The closing shots of Monte Carlo or Bust! enthrall the local cinema audience. A carefree dog threatens to dart out of an open gate. A rich man drinks and sings as a forest fire rages behind him.

Compelling tale

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, each of these moments serves as background action. At the forefront is the tender tale of an indigenous live-in housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a newly single mother of three young children, in the titular district of ’70s Mexico City. Roma is a beautifully shot ode to a culture in upheaval. But what truly distinguishes it from other sociopolitical snapshots of its time, is the fact that its secondary images aren’t merely frame fillers.

The passive treatment of backgrounds in cinema is rooted in its obsession with two-dimensional terminology: “extras,” “production design” and “depth of field” suggest a singular viewpoint beyond which the personality of a frame is only a form of artistic adornment. Which is why, most movies treat the environment as a physical extension that exists to highlight the foreground rather than compliment it.

Parallel lives

But in Roma, it is a living, breathing postcard of parallel realities. The 65mm camera often stays on the action beyond the duration of the primary moment – in effect allowing them to retain an individuality that we seldom sense from the ‘corners’ of carefully composed frames. In doing this, Cuarón acknowledges that everyday life is essentially an amalgamation of separate feature-length stories. When a director chooses one perspective, it doesn’t mean the others don’t exist. Here, they continue to unravel simultaneously, in context of their own disparate worlds, and just happen to be captured by a lens in passing. For instance, the moods of Roma – Cleo’s errands, Sofia’s misadventures with her broad-bodied Ford Galaxy – might have been the background of films titled Santa Fe, Juarez or Tepito. The change in focus is all that distinguishes these lives from one another.

This vantage-point equation is projected in the relationship between the movie and its maker. Roma is Cuarón’s ode to his own childhood and the locality that shaped it. The 56-year-old director presumably represents one of the three kids. But the tone of his film is anything but young. While most autobiographical pictures are narrated from the perspective of the maker, Roma unfurls through the eyes of an unassuming housekeeper – or in other words, the ultimate peripheral character of middle-class existence. Cleo, too, might have existed on the fringes of little Cuarón’s vision: an “extra” dotting his surroundings, rather than a human being with a sense of agency.

Family in crisis

With Roma, the director compensates for the tunnel vision of his growing-up years by examining them as a grown-up. He alters the view of his own life by turning into the backdrop for Cleo’s life. Just as the camera allows the foreground to play out before panning to its surroundings, Roma, too, gently pans from Sofia’s domestic crisis to Cleo’s internal turmoil. It then stays on Cleo through thick (her growing closeness to her employers) and thin (an accidental pregnancy, the Corpus Christi massacre). By integrating this fading demarcation of class barriers into the film’s visual style, Cuarón pays tribute to the woman that might have complemented his childhood without him quite realising it.

Cuarón’s decision to explore the context of his history rather than his history itself, is hinted at in how the aforementioned actions are in fact aspirational scenarios for its foreground characters. Take a closer look. Cleo is the one washing the tiles in which the airplanes are reflected – she would rather be up there than down here. The celebratory tunes of the brass band drown out Sofia’s grief of watching her husband abandon her. An air-bound human cannonball is what Cleo would rather be as she searches for the absconding father of her unborn baby. Sofia announces the divorce to her crestfallen children, opposite the loved-up couple at the beach. Cleo worriedly waits for her boyfriend – who never returns – in a dark hall, even as Tony Curtis charms on the screen behind her. The family dog is blissfully unaware that his human parents are breaking up outside the gate. The workers toiling to extinguish the forest fire would rather be in the position of the drunken landlord singing between them.

And finally, the little boy nestled between Cleo and Sofia would rather grow into a storyteller than a story.

(The writer is a freelance film critic, writer and habitual solo traveller)

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 4:16:19 AM |

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