I saw Roma two summers ago; there was something captivating about it – there was a sense of being home away from home; a bit more cleaner, as colourful and maybe a bit less noisier home than the home that is India. I walked through Roma, took the metro to get there from Coyocan, the old heart of Mexico city. The latitude in the city was similar, the fruits ripening to the same heat: mangoes, mangoes con chile, Indian/mexican small limes, peas in pods, the spices in the salsa, yet a subtly different flavour to the place signaling a new yet familiar adventure. I was exhausted by the cold that living in northern Ireland had set in my bones and was feeling like the fruit that welcomes the summer.
The next time I saw Roma, it was on Netflix, The movie brought back the kind of flavours of nostalgia I had felt when I had walked those streets; along with the philosophical and familiar presence of inequality and poverty laced with the abundance of unmelodramatic love our societies share.
Maybe poetically, Roma on Netflix sat there, strikingly crisp in black and white among the many offerings of bollywood movies, food shows and epic dramas! As I think about it, three things influenced my watching of the movie – those six weeks I spent in Mexico city, getting to know some of the director Alfonso Cuaron’s extended family in that time (a fortunate accident, let’s say!), and the fact that I am from India but living away from her.
The movie was already in the buzz a few months ago – we had even made some unsuccessful attempts to get tickets to one of the very few public screenings of the movie. Thus, there were some expectations. I have to say that the movie easily lived upto them, in a rather calm, gentle and unhurried manner. As was recommended to me by somebody in the know, it should definitely be watched on the big screen, if possible. Not for the usual reasons one may watch a big studio action blockbuster – big action, big sound, big effects etc…but maybe for the reasons one may watch a great painting in an art gallery.
The movie is a beautiful black, white and many shades of gray creation of director-writer- and (first time) cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron; another offering from the powerhouse of Mexican (or maybe even Mexico city!) filmmkakers. However, Roma is (literally) a personal story, as much on Earth as Cuaron’s previous blockbuster Gravity was in outer space.
Roma captures the childhood of the Cuaron family, centred around their house maid Cleo played brilliantly by first time actor Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo is based on the real life nanny of the Cuarons’ Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez. What the movie does brilliantly is bring out the invisible: the invisble life of the invisible helpers and the invisible struggle of women as they go along keeping familes and households alive. In some ways, it is a simple story set in the 1970-71 Roma neighbourhood, Mexico city. Roma is a series of snapshots of life as maybe in a relatively affluent, well educated, middle class household in a developing country. At the same time, there are a number of significant events such as the corpus christi massacre and major changes in the character’s lives.
The developing country part is important here. Developed countries like the US, UK and European countries seem to have reduced inequality to at least the extent that only the very rich can afford household staff. In India (and Mexico), it is common to have household staff if you are above a certain level of a middle class. These form a class of their own – blending into the background; essential like Utilities – not noticed when present, sorely missed when absent. This is to the extent that there are jokes that the woman of the house would rather lose her husband than her house maid (ironically, that’s almost what happens in the movie, except there was no choice involved!). What is noticeable is their background – the `servants’ (and sometimes they do get called that) do often come from a different social, or in the case of India, caste background (which is a label very difficult to throw off). In Mexico, they seem to come from the indigenous people (as in the case of Cleo and Adela, the house maids in the movie) (historical note: Modern Mexico is an intercultural mix of (Spanish speaking) European settlers, and Indigenous people with a very rich ancient culture). Children, unlike adults, it seems, have much less of a sense of class, caste, and colour than they have of love – as this movie shows. That would be one lasting contribution of this film – the extraordinary in the ordinary life of an almost invisible class. Beyond this, maybe I should not discuss the story and leave it for you to discover!
A scene which is likely to be a classic captures this love – Cleo is washing the family laundry and the children enter the rooftop with their toy guns till Cleo ends up playing `dead’ with Pepe. The scene takes me back in a way to growing up in 1970’s India in somewhat similar circumstances – the presence of house maids and the love and care imparted by them to the children of the family.
But, now, to the craft of the movie! The movie is simply beautifully made. To me:
Roma is an art gallery of stunning high resolution black and white photographic pictures!
Roma is highly appealing to the (amateur) photographer within me. It is well known that the Oscar winners Alfonso Cuarón (for out of the world Gravity, 2014), Alejandro González Iñárritu (for the crazy Birdman, 2015, and the difficult watch The Revenant, 2016), and Guillermo del Toro (for the deliciously mercurial The Shape of Water, 2018) form the `Three Amigos’. But, the fourth amigo here is the hat-trick man: Emmanuel Lubezki – the Oscar winner for cinematography from 2014-16 (Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant). The story goes that, naturally, Cuaron wanted Lubezki (Chivo) to be the cinematographer but Cuaron took so long trying to get the perfect cast (i.e. find his Cleo) that Chivo’s schedule was blocked. Thus, Cuaron is also the cinematographer and may win that Oscar too on debut!
The camera comes in almost as another member of the cast – as a photographer moving with the story, often shooting in brilliant wide angles. There are shots of fields afar and children frolicking through them. There is the camera following Cleo from a short distance away as she goes through her house work. There is the camera hesitatingly following the (affluent) crowd `inspect’ a forest fire and in the stunning climax scene, the camera follows Cleo from the beach into the water shuddering and drenched with fear and trepidation. At times, such as a shot juxtaposing a family breaking apart and another celebrating coming together in a wedding, there seem almost too many characters in a single shot – multiple points of focus (maybe something a photographer would avoid) but it all works beautifully.
There is so much happening at a leisurely pace and without warning that if you are not paying attention, you may miss it. There are aeroplanes making strategic appearances and cars being driven badly! Another such scene which I really liked was the training class being conducted by Prof. Zovek for the Los Halcones. He demonstrates what he describes as an incredible feat – striking a one-leg stand yoga pose of balance! – except that it has to be done with the eyes closed. The paramilitaries – all the young, heroic (in their mind, at least) men, including Cleo’s boyfriend, fumble and stumble. If you were not paying attention, you may not notice that the one person balanced enough to strike the pose is Cleo herself who is part of the insignificant crowd on the edge.
Finally, Roma brings up the debate of Netflix vs big screen cinemas! There has been a lot of debate around what constitutes a proper movie release – especially around awards season. And, it seems Roma has delivered a big blow for streaming services with the big Bafta in the pocket and 10 Oscar nominations! I won’t go much into that debate by saying that it’s great that such nice movies are being made, and if Netflix is behind them, let that be so! I would however really hope that after the Oscars, the movie will have some more big theatre screenings. For one, I do not have a cinema level home theatre at home which can do the movie justice! However, in the meanwhile, enjoy this brilliant trailer which I heartily recommend – why? Because somebody had the genius idea of setting it to one of my favourite pieces of music – The great gig in the sky by Pink Flloyd!
…Finally, the camera rests…