By Liam Lacey
Shot in black and white — often in long documentary-like observational takes with sparse dialogue — Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is a childhood memory film, both beautiful to look at and intriguing to contemplate. Among the sources of intrigue is the point-of- view which is, by turns, specific and personal as it explores the lives of a chaotic middle-class family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in 1970 and 71. At other times, Cuarón takes the God's eye view in overhead and high shots, tracing political and cultural change during the era.
As rich as it is visually, Roma also features a densely textured soundtrack, with a constant hum of foreground and background music and voices and noise creating a kind of sonic bath in the past.
The protagonist is a family maid, a young indigenous woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is barely taller than the four children she tends to, with long hair down her back and an impassive demeanor. Along with another servant of Mixteco heritage, Adela (Nancy Garcia), she cleans, cooks, and tends the children. The one task she doesn't do so well is clean the dog poop off the tiled floor of the carport, which becomes a sort of running gag in the film.
The family consists of the doctor father (Fernando Grediaga), a bearded chain-smoking workaholic, whose arrival home each night — as he nudges his oversized Ford Galaxy into the too-narrow garage — is a daily family spectacle sport. When dad leaves for a medical conference in Quebec, and then fails to come home again, the mother Sophia (Marina de Tavira) tries to keep the children from knowing that the husband is with another woman, urging them to write him letters begging him to come home from "Quebec."
Roma is less a conventional plot than a series of high-impact moments, proceeding in a procession of events. A marching band, with no crowd watching, rattles and pipes through the nearly empty street. Hawkers yell outside the movie theatre in front of the noisy traffic. On Cleo's day off, she and Adela go out with two friends. Cleo's date, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) suggests they go for a walk, which turns out to be a walk to his apartment, where, after sex, he stands naked, waving around a shower curtain like a kendo sword to demonstrate his martial arts skills. Soon after, Cleo discovers she is pregnant; as soon as he hears, Fermin makes himself scarce. Cleo, frightened she will be fired her pregnancy, tells her employer. But Sophia, recognizing another woman who has been abandoned, is sympathetic and helpful.
The year ends with a party at a country estate, which includes a shooting party (echoes of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game) and references to unrest from the local indigenous population. There are fireworks displays, and then a fire in the woods, which threatens catastrophe but fizzles out, while one of the costumed partiers sings a song. The next Christmas the party goes walking over the charred remains of the blaze. This is one of several sequences in the movie where tragedy threatens but is suddenly averted.
Back in the city, Cleo learns that her baby's father is nearby and she tracks him down, near a sprawling shanty town, to a vast field where an army of men are seen taking martial instructions from a bizarre character, both fitness instructor and cult leader. She sees Fermin again, briefly, while shopping for a crib. Fermin is part of a right-wing para-military group, involving the killing of 120 student protestors during the 1971 Corpus Christie massacre. Cleo goes into shock and her water breaks.
Ah yes, the water. Throughout the film, Cleo, is constantly associated with water. She is repeatedly seen sloshing water to mop up the family courtyard. There's the leaking of her amniotic fluid, and a climactic scene, near Veracruz beach, involving the kids getting stranded in high waves. We can’t escape the idea that she’s an elemental being — possibly named for the Greek muse of history or a Madonna figure —who reveals almost nothing of her interior life. In a final scene, Cleo is shot from below, ascending a high fire escape, like a saint ascending to heaven, though the dog is still below.
Cleo’s one-dimensional saintliness keeps us at a distance, though, like the cavils about Sandra Bullock’s dead child in Cuarón’s Gravity. But the emotional obviousness shouldn’t be a deal breaker. And, in Cuarón's defense, Cleo can be seen as partly a projection of the children's perspective; a beloved family secret as a kind of secret super-hero.
In any case, plot and character aren’t the reward centres here. The real achievement of Roma is Cuarón’s bold conception of a memory movie, blending childlike detail and adult detachment, and the rich visual and aural design that make this one of the more sensually pleasurable films of the year.
Roma. Directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Jorge Antonio Guerrero. Playing Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning November 29, and steaming on Netflix as of December 14.