Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writer: Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón
Producer: Gabriela Rodríguez, Alfonso Cuarón, and Nicolás Celis
by Jon Cvack
I had watched Children of Men (2006) the day before going to see this film; having thought I remembered far more. I had always liked the film, but for some reason I never felt the need to revisit. And I’m fairly certain I hadn’t seen before directing Road to the Well; providing that amazing experience that returning to great films always does, in which the language and use of cinema is on full display, unable to be fully appreciated before learning the craft. What I failed to remember is that aside from the legendary one-takes (it’s been so long I actually forgot about Theo’s final push into the building), is that many scenes rely on the same minimal coverage; immersing you within the experience, photographed beautifully by Emmanuel Lubezki.
Roma opens on a close up of a water puddle as the credits roll and we see Alfonso Cuarón produced, wrote, directed, and served as director of photography on the production, after a scheduling error prevented Emmanuel Lubezki from joining the show. Then again, the way the photography crew’s credits are shown is strikingly similar to how Paul Thomas Anderson presented them in Phantom Thread (2018), which he also elected to shoot.
From there, sure enough, Cuarón employs the same subtle long takes found in Children of Men, following a young Latino maid, Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio) as she cleans the house of an upper class couple - the house mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her doctor husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Together they have four children Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa), Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), and Paco (Carlos Peralta) and a dog that enjoys shitting in the driveway.
Told mostly from the perspective of Cleo, we see that she lives with the other maids’ in a separate flat behind the home. They both enjoy their jobs. Cleo especially loves the children. And as two young women with money in their pockets, they enjoy going out, where one night, Cleo has sex with a young man named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who’s obsessed and fully committed to his martial arts; displaying his power with a shower rod in one of the most intense post coital scenes.
Back home, Antonio takes off with his bags packed in the middle of the night, allegedly for a conference, leaving Sofia in tears. While not explicitly stated, it’s clear he’s not coming back, and therefore leaving Sofia to care for the children alone.
Shortly after, Cleo and Fermín head to the movies in one of the most beautiful shots of the film. As the comedy-action film plays in the background on screen, Cleo says she’s late and, at first, Fermín seems to be welcoming of the fact, before excusing himself to use the bathroom even though there are only seconds left of the movie. The credits later roll, Cleo grabs Fermín’s jacket and heads out, realizing Fermín is gone.
Cleo later tells Sofia that she’s pregnant, scared to death that she’d force her to have to leave. Instead Sofia and later some of the children console her with hugs, expressing their love. While this doesn’t prevent Sofia from occasionally snapping at Cleo when her marital stress runs high, it takes awhile to realize that there’s no malicious intent or boiling eruption, but rather that Cleo is very much a part of Sofia’s family; in which love is reciprocated on both sides.
Cleo soon tracks Fermín down to return the jacket and explain that she’s having the baby. She takes a bus to a distant rural community, where countless steel and wood cabins sit in mud. One of Cuarón's finest talents is finding the beauty in uncommon situations; in this case showing a punk band rocking out in the front of the huts and Cleo breaks up their practice to ask where she can find Fermín. She’s led to a dusty field where fifty or so other martial artists practice with bamboo sticks, led by a local television stuntman per the likes of Evel Knievel. The practice ends and Cleo confronts Fermín, who erupts, threatening to beat her should she ever confront him again.
She goes home and the family assists Cleo with her pregnancy. The grandmother, Teresa (Verónica García), takes her to a department store to buy a crib while a mass protest is taking place in the streets. Moments after they choose the crib, and in the film’s most memorable shot, noise picks up outside, quickly shifting into a violent eruption as the protestors turn against the police; attacking them with weapons and making their way into the store. A desperate man, running from the clash enters, followed by three armed who enter, one of them Fermín, chasing the man into a corner and shooting him down, while Cleo does her best to hide.
Moments after they leave, Cleo’s water breaks and Teresa rushes her out, passing a woman collapsed over her dead husband in the streets; a shot taken as a straight throwback to Children of Men (2006). A man offers to drive, but they get stuck in full stop traffic as the people try and flee the protests. Soon she ends up at the hospital and in an absolutely brutal single take (in fact, shot only once) we watch Cleo in a medium profile while actual hospital staff carry out the birth procedure, soon delivering a stillborn baby which they’re unable to resuscitate. The nurse gives her the baby to hold before taking it back, placing it on a table next to Cleo (still in the same single take) and they wrap it up in a blanket.
To help Cleo cope with both her loss and the official demise of her marriage, Sofia takes Cleo and the children onto a trip to the country where she plans to break the news. Over dinner, she finally breaks the news and the nuanced children respond in their various ways. On the return home, they decide to stop at a beach where a couple of the children beg to go into the ocean which the mother grants while she grabs something in the car. Cleo keeps an eye on them, but when checking another one of the children, she turns to see that they’re gone. In another impressive single take, the camera dollies parallel with Cleo as she approaches the ocean, up to the wake where she calls out and we see how violent the waves are. She enters the water and camera follows, remaining what seems only a foot or so above the water and yet not catching a single drop of water, further along as Cleo gets up to her neck in the water and we start fearing the worst; until she sees one of the children and rushes over, helping the boy along before finding the girl. She saves them both, returns to the beach, where the mother and other children are in distraught with fear; they hug each other and we see the poster of the film; where Cleo then mentions that she’s glad she lost the baby as she loves the family so much and didn’t want it; feeling guilty at the admission. She’s hailed a hero and they all head back home where she starts cleaning up after them once again, and again missing the dog shit on the driveway.
An exhausted response to classic era filmmakers such as Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman, Ray, and others is how much cinema has changed; where if only we could get back to telling the same intimate and touching stories cinema might be revived. Cuarón had long wished to make this film in an attempt to recreate his memories of youth; Cuarón has gone so far as to say that 90% of the film is factual. And thus the first films I was left comparing it to are amongst the finest of foreign cinema - The 400 Blows (1959), Pather Panchali (1955), and of course Fellini’s film by the same name Roma (1972). In one scene in which the family celebrates Christmas with an extended family, with countless children running around, and copious amounts of alcohol consumed by the dozens of adults, I was left remembering Fanny and Alexander (1982) and the way in which it presented such a beautiful world that felt entirely authentic. All so often such comparisons of this type seem far too generous. Cuarón had accomplished the miraculous in maintaining their spirit while adding his own style.
And yet my one complaint is with the central character, who while giving a fantastic performance, seemed needlessly limited with the material. There was something icky about Cleo’s character; in which Cuarón painted her as someone who rather than creating her own family seemed entirely dedicated to another’s. In the end, no matter the heroics of saving children or surviving such a devastating event, she’ll always have to go back to picking up after others; in service to their every need - picking up after them, compensating for their laziness, cleaning up the dog shit and having it scrub it from the brick driveway.
For some reason, Cleo has no passion or concern beyond this family; she has no interest in books, art, or music; she likes the movies the way the general public likes the movies. I couldn’t help wondering if 90% of this film was based on Cuarón's life, did he perhaps miss the complexity of this person, or was her entire life and all of her interests truly dedicated to this family? If so, why couldn’t some of that 10% creative liberty have been dedicated to providing a bit more of a personality; needs and desires which extended beyond being a lower class citizen in service to an upper class family? Being born in 1961 and with the film taking place in 1970, I’m wondering if Cuarón was a bit too married to the idea of showing the world as he perceived it back then; in which failing to notice an entire person’s dreams and desires is excused by youthful innocence. There is no problem with telling a story through a child’s eyes, but this film revolves around Cleo, and I was left wondering how much more there was to learn.
BELOW: Fitting in today's world
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