“Roma” (2018, 2 h 15 min) was written, directed and produced by Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film is another technical tour de force by the Mexican director. It’s “Gravity” set in Mexico. And, just like his previous films, “Roma” tells a meandering story that occasionally soars but is mostly banal and undramatic.
The film takes place in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cleo, the main character, is a maid of indigenous origins who works and lives with an upper-middle class family. The family is going through a divorce as the husband leaves his wife and three kids. During that separation, Cleo assumes the role of comforting nanny as she herself becomes pregnant from a man who abandons her as soon as he learns Cleo is going to have a baby. Mexico City is also going through turmoil as student protests take place. It’s never made clear in the film what the students are protesting against.
While the story feels slow and uneventful, there is much to discuss in Cuarón’s mise-en-scène. It’s very precise. It’s hard not to notice the choice of camera placements, the slow movements and the long focal lengths, not to mention the use of a crisp, beautiful, black and white image. There are many slow left to right camera pans. It’s one of the recurring movements throughout the film. The long take (which can last several minutes), which is customary in Cuarón’s films, allows for the action to unfold uninterrupted before us. This means the actors and every element in the frame had to be ready all the time. That means you need to be be very well prepared and have excellent actors. Close-ups and cutaway shots are practically non-existent in the film. When there are close-ups, it is to introduce important elements.
Another technical feat lies in the film’s clever use of sound. The attention to details made people in the audience where I saw the film turn their heads towards where they heard the sound coming from only to realize that the birds chirping or people talking behind them were actually part of the film’s soundtrack. The film has no incidental music but instead contains many songs which all come from what is going on in the action. It’s rare that a film has no original score. The city soundscape provides the score for the film.
The story, even though there are a few strong moments, such as Cleo going into labour in the midst of a student protest and then giving birth at the hospital, unfolds too slowly. The opening scene establishes the film’s style and pace. Soapy water is thrown around as we look at the floor and hear someone scrubbing. In the water’s reflection, a plane goes by in the distant sky. The cleaning goes on for several minutes as the film’s credit appear over top. Cuarón’s name appears at least in five different occasions. Cuarón did a lot on this film and that’s understandable but it still felt pretentious. At least he hasn’t reached Pedro Almodovar’s level of pretentiousness by letting go of his first name and have a title that says: “a film by Almodovar” in huge letters. This long opening ends with the camera tilting up to reveal Cleo who then goes to bathroom and comes out of it. The whole film is like that opening scene, impressive and banal, wowing by its point of view. We feek like voyeurs de luxe inside these people’s lives.
The film reminded me of 1950s-1970s’ films from ICAIC (Cuba) and Cinema Novo (Brazil) and others. Those films also used stunning black and white, long, wide shots.
With a title like “Roma, “I kept wondering throughout the film when the action was going to move to Italy. After seeing the film, I discovered “Roma” is named after a neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up. And here I was thinking this black and white film was going to be an hommage to Federico Fellini!