The charm of the black-and-white in contemporary film in my mind frequently gives way to the dribbles of cliché, echoing the cheap vulgarity of something like Sin City. Even Schindler’s List, in all its historical power, and the brutal beauty of its script, I always found was perfectly emblematic of Steven Spielberg’s somehow formula-oriented, and predictable, way of filmmaking. And yet, yesterday I watched the colorless lights and warmth of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and I was mesmerized. It is shot in black and white, and this is immediately noticeable, but within those limitations Cuarón managed to create a breadth of heat and emotion that I found spectacular.
I already remembered his work from the desolate images of Children of Men, which stood out for its long, single-frame action shots. In Roma, he employs a less expansive but similarly impressive capture, following the girl Cleo as she runs down a sidewalk of Mexico City with her friend to a cinema date or an eerie scene of a small forest fire in what seems like a Christmas trip to a US state. Cleo is the domestic help of a white middle-class Mexican family living in Colonia Roma, a neighborhood of Mexico City. It is 1970 to ’71, and the streets of Roma receive the stunning cars of yesteryear, affordable to its inhabitants, as well as the occasional political march. The pleasant thing about Roma is that there is a glimmer of political vibration and unrest on the surface of the film, but it does not dominate; nor does the desperate inequality that exists between the slummed district Cleo visits at one point and the bourgeois house of her “family”. I went in to the film, shamefully perhaps, with little clue of Mexican history generally, or 1970 particularly. And yet I felt that social unrest, some levels of street protest and violence, and, naturally, the painful inequalities of any Central American metropolis need not have been depicted or described more. Roma, after all, is something of Cuarón’s own story, or inspired thereby. I very much enjoyed that I felt like I was sitting beside him, watching his eyes paint his own images, rather than sitting directly opposite him, eating up a story I was being fed.
Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, is a girl of a strange and wonderful beauty, whose permanently melancholic air is touching more than heart-breaking. She kisses the children of Señora Sofi, lady of the house, good-morning, each with individual words and rhythms, and you can see very clearly that they love her in a very real way, with the edge of a middle-class spoil but, interestingly, they are not especially less likeable for it. Cleo undergoes a trauma during the film, what exactly I will not give away, and her eyes alone are able to show how this trauma is digested. She is a wonderful actor, understated in her performance, but her emotions are rich and her quiet betrays an intelligence and a calm bravery. There is one moment where she alone, in the middle of a group of silly martial arts boys in training, is able to emulate the meditative pose of the martial arts “master”, eyes closed and on one leg. She is special and yet I found her very familiar. Roma is fundamentally the story of Cleo and her serenity and her sadness.
Still, besides Cleo, there are other women in the film that really inspired wonder for me. “We are always alone”, Sofia, the mother of the children, says one evening to Cleo when she comes home drunk, referring to her absent and arsehole doctor husband. Her face is angry and strongly expressive, she is on the verge of tears and fists and then the next moment she is a tender mother of four. She might have been unsympathetic to the audience were it not for her sweet embrace of Cleo, the quasi-comical battery of her husband’s cars, and, most obviously, the pure love she has for her children. The grandmother is an equally special presence on the screen, her large frame waddling across the screen, an unlikely figure but whose very strong emotion also comes out in the crucial scene of the film. The men, on the other hand, are not good guys, but this is done without making the point that all men are bastards. We are again drawn very much to the particular; the two specific bad men, the Doctor and Fermìn, Cleo’s boyfriend, are bad to their respective women, but not in a generalized sense. The story retains its focus on Sofi and especially Cleo, without drowning them in socio-political statements.
I found Roma to be a stunning and strong film, the best I had seen in a long time. I made the effort to see it on the big screen, it had a special showing at a local cinema, despite its production for Netflix. A shame that it was Netflix indeed that made it, and odd for Cuarón to produce it in this way for the small screen and the bedside light. I will still profess my love for his piece, and set my distaste for the cheap thrills and self -created and –promoted market of Netflix temporarily aside. This film is certainly at home in the darkness of a cinema. Certain particular shots, the sunlight oozing down a quiet beach through the gaps of embracing children, or Cleo edging down the steps, from the far distance of the screen, to the basement New Year’s party. Or the final frame, still Cleo walking up the thin, long steps that reach toward the roof, and open up into the white sky, half-expecting her to slip. These are images of such beauty I was thinking I’d like to have them on my bedroom walls. Cleo does not slip on the stairs, and the film, in spite of its sorrow, and violence, and betrayal, leaves an aftertaste of hope.