This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
This UK release from the always reliable New Wave distribution company has been gathering a great deal of support from UK critics and programmers. It is certainly an impressive film but I do wonder what audiences are making of it. There are currently only three responses on IMDb, two of which are negative, but the ‘User Ratings’ suggest a very positive response. I’m struggling to find words to describe my own overall response and I’ll try to be as objective as possible.
As the title suggests, the film focuses on Evella (‘Eve’), a chambermaid in a 5 star hotel in Mexico City. Eve is a 24 year-old Indigenous woman who has clearly made good progress in her time at the hotel. She is now responsible for the 21st floor and has her sights set on the 42nd floor, the penthouse suite. Later we will learn that she has a small boy being looked after by a child-minder and that a further promotion will help her pay for this child care and to find more suitable accommodation in the city. The narrative doesn’t actually move out of the hotel until the final scene and all we know about Eve’s life outside work is gleaned from the phone calls she manages to make to the child-minder.
The writer-director Lila Avilés (b. 1982) has a background in theatre, TV and film, writing, directing, producing and acting. She has formed her own film production company which carries this statement on its website:
Limerencia Films is a Mexican independent film producer founded by Lila Avilés and the film La Camarista. Limerencia Films intends to continue producing author films with deep themes, searching new cinematographic narratives with international projection. Avilés is currently in the development stage of her next film, which is an autobiographical story.
A sister company is concerned with stage productions. It’s important to note that the two other features that Alivés has made are documentaries. La camarista is presented, in CinemaScope (2.35 : 1), almost like a documentary study of Eve’s working life in the hotel and the Press Notes reveal that the film started from a documentary approach. The whole film has a subdued colour palette of whites, blues and greys enlivened only occasionally by more dramatic colours. The hotel itself is ‘tastefully’ decorated. Significantly, perhaps, Eve is hoping to claim a bright red dress left behind by a guest. She is ‘top of the list’ if the owner doesn’t claim the dress after a few weeks have passed. I didn’t notice much music in the film, though as one reviewer has pointed out there is a sophisticated sound design by Guido Berenblum incorporating all the sounds of the building which is sealed off from the roar of the city outside. The film lasts for just over 100 minutes and the plot is minimal. We spend a significant amount of the running time accompanying Eve on her cleaning, bed-making and re-stocking of what the subtitles refer to as ‘amenities’ (soap, towels etc.). The film’s ‘action sequences’ comprise Eve’s interactions with other hotel staff and a handful of guests. Sometimes these meetings are quite dramatic, perhaps seeming more so because of the observational sequences which proceed them. When I reflected on the film’s aesthetic, the term that kept coming to me was ‘austere’, but perhaps it should have been ‘controlled’. There is enormous care in the presentation of what is a wonderful performance by Gabriela Cartol as Eve via the cinematography of Carlos Rossini, the editing of Omar Guzmán and the art direction by Vika Fleitas.
What are we invited to take from this meticulous observational study? Perhaps inevitably, critics have referenced Roma (2018) because of the parallel of Indigenous women working as maids/housekeepers in Mexico City. I’m not sure that is very helpful. In Roma, as in many other Latin American film narratives, the maid is part of a household with distinct relationships with a family and events are often played out as part of a family melodrama. Any Latin American film focusing on a maid is going to have a clear discourse about both social class and ethnicity in unequal societies – and not just in Latin America. La camarista is almost like an ‘anti-melodrama’ in its observational style, yet it does have its melodrama moments. Eve, once out of her uniform and with her hair down is an attractive young woman as well as a working mum. But just as importantly, the script develops a critique of the economic plight of the hotel workers in this hotel and symbol of global capitalism. There is a narrative tension in the film. Will Eve get her red dress and her promotion? Will she be able to improve her chances by gaining a high school diploma while studying in an improvised cramming class for hotel workers?
The hotel is a community, a form of family perhaps, for all the hotel workers. But it is also a factory in which workers are in danger of exploitation. Eve is understandably wary of getting closer to fellow workers and her immediate superiors. Managements invariably divide and rule. Eve will meet other workers who try to sell her things, pressurising her to buy. They may discriminate against her because of her background – yet she needs them and they may know more about the job and ways around problems.
I certainly recommend The Chambermaid, but audiences need patience and sharp observation to get everything from the narrative. Eve is definitely worth getting to know and I will look out for future films by Lila Avilés. I hope she doesn’t lose her documentarist’s eye, but I would like to see a little more narrative development in future projects. The film continues for a third week at HOME in Manchester, demonstrating how a 5 screen cinema can nurture an audience for films like this. The film is also available on Curzon’s streaming service in the UK and it is still touring venues in the US.
This film has a similar title to the classic Claude Chabrol film from 1960 (Les bonnes femmes, France-Italy) which has by chance drawn a few visitors to this blog recently. Both films have question marks about how to translate their titles into English. It’s the ‘good’ part that’s the problem. What exactly does it mean? Chabrol’s film about four working-class shopgirls received criticism at the time but has since become recognised as one of his best films. Las niñas bien is about a group of upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 1982. The film was written and directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were also women. This was noted on the film’s first big festival appearance at Toronto in 2018 where reviewers praised the film and Márquez Abella was selected by Variety as one of its ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2019. The film has since gone on to win prizes at festivals and was released in March in Mexico. However, I wonder how it might now be viewed by those audiences who so enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) which deals with same world at an earlier time of crisis in 1972?
Las niñas bien is adapted from a book of essays written in the early 1980s by Maria Guadalupe Loaeza, one of a group of ‘Good Girls’, who exposed how these women spent their time and their money and how they treated each other and the others (servants, receptionists, shop staff etc. as well as the nouveau riche) who they met. In the interview below, Alejandra Márquez Abella explains how she decided to use this source material which she thinks is still relevant thirty years later as the same social class divisions remain and Mexico has suffered recurring cycles of economic ‘boom and bust’. She recognises that the original was a satire but argues that she hasn’t created a satirical film but rather a form of detailed character study looking at how these women behave and how surface appearances relate to what might be happening ‘underneath’. She feels that satire doesn’t really work in exploring this kind of world any more – there have been so many such satirical films about social class in Latin America.
I have to say that as I watched the film I was very uncomfortable. Part of me was admiring the direction, the acting, the cinematography and the production design – this is a very well-made film. But the other half was raging against these wealthy dilettantes who contribute nothing to society and look down their carefully made-up noses at the rest of Mexico and indeed the country itself. After the screening I spent a long time thinking about the film and I haven’t quite resolved the conflict in my feelings about it.
The plot of the film follows roughly a year, I think, in the life of the central character SofÍa played by Ilse Salas. This is a stunning performance and I didn’t recognise the same actor who was also very good in Güeros (Mexico 2014) in a very different role. SofÍa is a woman from, presumably, a ‘good family’ who has been advised to marry Fernando because he too is from the right kind of family. When the narrative begins SofÍ is hosting a lavish party for her birthday. Everything is ‘just right’ except that she hasn’t achieved her fantasy result in which Julio Iglesias appears as a guest (this and the references to the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés is a sign of deference to the ex-colonial power in Mexico). The next day however Fernando learns that his uncle is pulling out of the business he had started as a ‘migrant’ (from Spain?) with Fernando’s father. There is a crisis coming with the falling value of the peso and anyone who doesn’t hold dollars is in trouble. From this point Fernando is in deep trouble – and so is SofÍ. Having packed her children off to summer camp with instructions not to mix with ‘Mexicans’ (!), SofÍ seems only marginally affected by the financial crisis when her credit cards are refused and her cheques bounce.
An important parallel plotline is the appearance of Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) as a young woman from the country with ‘uncouth’ manners who marries a successful financier (?) and aspires to join the ‘Good Girls’. She takes SofÍ as a role model and aspires to be like her, wanting to know how to speak, what clothes to wear, how to behave. SofÍ behaves very badly towards her but gradually the tables are turned as Ana Paula becomes the dominant figure in the social life of the group.
A great deal of time is spent on clothes, make-up and interior decoration. Some commentators argue that this is unusual and shows the care and attention of a female crew. DoP Dariela Ludlow must take some of the credit for her presentation of the women alongside costume designer Annai Ramos. The film is set in the early 1980s which, from my perspective was one of the worst periods for fashion and I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher – not a pleasant memory. At the end of the film, SofÍ tears out her shoulder pads and I thought this might mark a change for the good, but the actual resolution of the narrative suggests ‘business as usual’. Earlier I mentioned a comparison with Roma. There is one shared moment between the two films when a drunken husband crashes his car into a post, but otherwise the two films are very different. Roma offers us several perspectives on Mexican society and in particular promotes the maid and the children to central roles and effectively narrators of the film. The ‘Good Girls’ marginalise both their servants and their children.
It doesn’t look at the moment as if this film will make it into UK distribution. I wish it would because I think it could generate discussion about what a film by women and arguably ‘for women’ might be in the current climate. I’m not sure whether I’m in tune with what Alejandra Márquez Abella attempts to do here, but I’m definitely interested in what she might do next. The film has been taken by Netflix so you may be able to find it there. The interview below is well worth exploring.
John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.
The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.
The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.
I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.
Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.
It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.
Time Share won a Special Jury Prize (for scriptwriting, World Drama) at last year’s Sundance festival and appears to have been seen little in cinemas outside Mexico (where it won a couple of Ariels). Whether we should be grateful to Netflix for picking up the film for distribution, or berate them for preventing it being shown in cinemas, I don’t know. I do know that director Sebastián Hofmann, who edited the film and co-scripted with Julio Chavezmontes, clearly has a cinematic eye that would greatly benefit from the big screen. Matias Penachino’s cinematography brings out the candy colours of the holiday resort setting that makes it look like a Ballardian hell.
Pedro (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) arrive late at their time share villa to find it’s been double-booked with another family. Hofmann and Chavezmontes’ script beautifully captured the apologies of corporate speak that mean nothing and the families are forced to co-habit. A parallel plot focuses on Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and his wife Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) who are taking opposite trajectories as workers for Everfields, the American owners of the resort. The corporate environment is causing Andres to lose his grip on reality whilst Gloria relishes the promotion that gives her the opportunity to sell time shares to the holiday makers.
I don’t know the location of the film’s setting, a building designed to look like a Mayan temple, but I’m guessing it is an actual resort and wonder how the filmmakers managed to finesse making such an excoriating satire at the expense of the industry. ‘Excoriating’ only to an extent: the final half hour doesn’t quite have the punch of what precedes it. I’d have preferred that they had gone full blown ‘madness’ rather than keep the narrative world in touch with reality. Grotesquerie is reserved for the credit sequence at the end.
As noted above, Hofmann creates some stunning shots (the golf buggies’ dreamy movement, for example) and uses shallow depth of field, occasionally, to give a surreal look to the setting. A pink flamingo makes its appearance a couple of times suggesting that the pharmaceuticals given are designed to do more than pacify and relieve pain.
This was Hofmann’s second feature as a director and I hope I get to see his next one in a cinema.
I was lucky to catch Roma on the big screen after a mad dash from Kings Cross to Leicester Square and then to the Curzon Soho – I was briefly in London with three hours to spare. I refuse to subscribe to Netflix so the only other option was a trip to tiny screens in Curzons in Sheffield or Ripon. (See Keith’s earlier posting on the difficulties of seeing the film in West Yorkshire.) I didn’t worry though. I knew the effort would be worthwhile and it was. A great deal has already been written about Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘memoir’ and I wonder if I can say anything new? I’m not one, I hope, to be taken in by all the hype that surrounds a Golden Lion winner at Venice. So I’ll try to be dispassionate.
Much as been made about Cuarón’s multiple roles as writer-director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. Roma‘s camerawork has plenty of attention. Cuarón shot the film on an Alexa 65 digital film camera. This means that he recorded more visual data via the ‘capture chip’ in the camera than most digitally shot films. The projected film is shown in black & white in a CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio and it looks very good. There are possible ‘flaws’ however. Cuarón is fond of both tracking shots and pans to construct scenes in long takes. Because much of the film is set in an upper middle-class district of Mexico City (‘Roma’) in streets and inside a family home using only ‘available’ light, there is often a quite shallow field of focus and several shots throw characters out of focus or distort the image as the camera pans and tracks (I assume that this is a function of the lenses and the focal length). This in turn offers a comment on the neo-realist qualities of the cinematography. Occasionally, Cuarón swings the camera up and catches a jet airliner flying high over the city. But most times that a wide vista offering the deep focus of classic neo-realist imagery in long shot is developed it is in the scenes set outside the city centre such as where a large group of young men are practising martial arts moves in a form of parade ground setting or when the family travel to the beaches near Vera Cruz. I mention neo-realism simply because it is one of the cinema aesthetics mentioned by critics writing about the film, but Roma is not a neo-realist film. It does, however, achieve the emotional impact of some of the classic neo-realist melodramas.
The look of the film has been seen as very important for several reasons. Cuarón has said that he went to Netflix because traditional Hollywood studios would question a project on this scale presented in black and white and without a conventional genre-based narrative or recognisable international stars. Cinephiles also have expectations of the camerawork and staging which were so important in the closing scenes of Children of Men (2006 US-UK-Japan) and throughout Gravity (UK-US 2013). Cuarón himself has further generated expectations by promoting 70mm film screenings and making claims about the details in the projected image. (Screen 1 at Curzon Soho has both 35mm film and 4K digital projection. I assume what I watched was a DCP but whether it was 2K or 4K, I don’t know.) But while the image (visual and aural) attracts cinephiles, several film fans on IMDb complain that “there is no story”. I don’t agree, but I can see where the complaint comes from.
The film is a ‘memoir’. It is set over roughly one year from the summer of 1970 to the middle of 1971. Alfonso Cuarón had his 9th birthday in November 1970 in a similar house in the same district of Mexico City. His younger brother Carlos was 4 at that time and I believe Alfonso also has a sister Christina. Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. Large scale student demonstrations in Mexico City broke out in 1971 resulting in the ‘massacre’ of 120 student protestors in June. The latter, known as the ‘Corpus Christi massacre’ features in the film. The civil action was part of a protest during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in Mexico. The fictitious family presumably mirrors the social class position of the Cuarón family at this point.
[I should guide any readers at this point to the dossier of essays on Roma published by Mediático “a collectively authored media and film studies blog, which showcases a diverse array of research, news, views and perspectives on Latin(o/a) American, Spanish and Portuguese media cultures”. The dossier can be found at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/ These experts on Latin American cinema know far more than I do. I’m still going to make my comments, but you can use the dossier to explore the issues in more detail.]
The family comprises the mother Sofía, the father (who moves out in the early part of the film), three young sons and a daughter ranging in age from 4 to young teenager and Sofía’s mother, Sra. Teresa. The household also includes a large dog kept in the closed driveway and two house servants who live in an annex. One of these is Cleo who acts as a maid/nanny and she is the main protagonist of the story. The other is Adela who seems to be mainly concerned with cooking, cleaning and laundry. There is also a male handyman who works mainly as a driver but I don’t think he ‘lives in’. Cleo is based on Alfonso Cuarón’s own nanny, Liboria or ‘Libo’, to whom the film is dedicated.
The narrative follows the daily lives of the household through the period in which the father absents himself, first on a plausible trip to a conference which is then extended. Sofía will at first keep up the pretence that he will return but will eventually be forced to tell the children. Cleo is part of the household but on her days off she has a boyfriend and we follow the course of her relationship with him. If this sounds like an intimate family melodrama, Cuarón makes it into something more akin to an epic ‘city symphony’ using CGI to fill in the period details in the street scenes including memorable visits to cinemas and a theatre, the government hospital (where the father is a senior figure), a New Year house party with relatives in the outer suburbs (Mexico City covers a vast area) and the activities of ‘Profesor Zovek’ (a showman performer played by a famous wrestler known as ‘Latin Lover’ – wrestlers in Mexico are celebrity figures and feature in popular films). So there is a story, which in its final act becomes highly emotional and delivers the punch of a superior melodrama. But, in an important sense, there is much more to the film and it is the wealth of detail and the richness of allusion which makes the film so compelling.
I was struck quite early in the film by the importance of its relationship to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). I’ve written quite extensively on this film in various places and therefore it has stayed with me. I think that audiences who aren’t familiar with the earlier film will miss something because they won’t be prompted to think about the different ways in which the two films approach some of the same ideas. (The dossier quoted above suggests that other Cuarón films are also important but I’ll stick with the one that is most closely connected.) There is too much to analyse in a single post but I should explain that the first film is set in the 1990s and is a form of road trip in which two young Mexican men take a road trip to the coast from Mexico City with an older female cousin of one of them. There is sex, drama and comedy along the way (and a narrative twist) but the film also acts as a social/political commentary on Mexico as a ‘teenage country’ (Cuarón’s term). The two young men Julio and Tenoch come from different social class positions. Tenoch is the character with the Cuarón family characteristics, coming from an upper middle class (in Mexican terms) family. His maid/nanny in the film is played by the real Liboria. Cuarón uses a device in the film borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard in which the ambient sound is cut and a voiceover comments on the action and on Mexican society/polity. So, for instance, when the boys drive through a village, the voiceover tells us that this is Leo/Liboria’s village. In Roma, Cuarón places similar information in the dialogue of the family melodrama. In a way this is more direct, but actually it requires more work to make the connections. For instance, although it is not said explicitly, we can deduce that the family has done very well under the long-running PRI government. They are the beneficiaries of state-supported ‘professionalisation’ – the father is a senior physician, the mother is a bio-chemist and university lecturer. At the same time, government policies have impoverished rural Mexico and encouraged the peasantry to migrate to the city where, like Cleo, they are forced to work as servants. Later in the narrative, Cleo will learn that another government initiative has taken her mother’s land rights away from her. Given the structure of society, the class system is also based on race. The family belong to the 9% ‘European’ population of Mexico. The rest of the population is Mestizo (‘mixed race’) at 60% and Indigenous at 30%. Cleo and Adela speak at various points in the Mixtec language of the peoples of Western Oaxaca (which is on the Pacific coast but is actually not far from the Caribbean coast of Vera Cruz given that Mexico is at its narrowest in this South-Eastern region). The UK print of Roma has two separate subtitle texts with the translation of the Mixtec dialogue shown inside square brackets.
In the dossier referenced above, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado refers to the distinction above in the two ways of delivering the social/political commentary and suggests that in Roma it is ‘sensorially conveyed’. This is achieved in two ways, first in Cuaron’s approach to the cinematography – i.e. using camera movement, composition and framing to signify the lived culture of the family in the city – and secondly through the soundtrack:
. . . the sound design, Roma’s most brilliant technical feat, building on the territory explored by directors like Lucrecia Martel in La ciénaga, turns the noises and utterances of everyday life, along with the mediascape of Mexican and global popular culture, into a constant set of signifiers related to the affective and social environment of 1970s modernity.
Sánchez Prado is not the only one to single out the film’s sound design and many critics have commented on it. I found it quite disconcerting in the Curzon cinema and it reminded me of the dramatic sound design of films like Apocalypse Now (Walter Murch, 1979). I was sat in the third row of 250 seat cinema and I was conscious of sound from behind me and from the sides of the auditorium. Background chatter and traffic noise were so subtly rendered that I thought for a moment that a door had been left open in the cinema. I can’t imagine the same experience is available via Netflix. I don’t think I could process all the sounds and visual images that I was offered – this is an incredibly rich text. But I would need to go back to a cinema and that looks very difficult. What have you done, Alfonso? I understand that Netflix enabled your creative freedom, but it’s important that audiences can see your film in a cinema. Thank you for this remarkable film, but I want to watch it again.
The triumph of the film is to place us in a position from where we can attempt to understand a world from the perspective of Cleo – played in the film by a non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. Some critics have remarked that Cleo says very little and that the family members treat her badly. But I think that the aim is for us to work out for ourselves what Cleo is thinking about what she sees. I don’t think that the family treats Cleo badly out of malice. I think that they behave towards someone who is very important for them emotionally in ways that have developed within a society structured around race and social class divisions. I enjoyed the film immensely and in the dramatic scenes in the latter part of the film I was unable to stop the tears which were shed for Cleo. The film is 135 minutes long and at the end of the screening, including the long credit sequence, the woman behind me said to her friend: “Gosh, is that the time? It’s hard to believe we’ve been here that long.” That’s the result of watching a great film in the cinema.