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 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.
Gravity works with audiences – in industry terms it has ‘legs’. Although it was released in early November, it still pulled in a healthy audience at the 3D screening I attended this week. It also works as a technical exercise in creating a ‘realist’ representation of the work of astronauts on a space station in orbit above the earth. (I am not commenting on the scientific ‘truth’ of the operations depicted, rather on the sense of ‘being there’ experienced by the audience.)
Alfonso Cuarón and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of the long take, though when bodies are floating through space and cameras are ‘virtual’ in the world of CGI, this means something rather different than it did for Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir. Cuarón is certainly ‘in control’ since as well as directing, he produced the film, co-wrote the script with his son Jonás and co-edited it with Mark Sanger. Perhaps he might have relinquished one of those roles and focused a little more on the script and possibly the casting? The film works for me as a thriller and I was squirming in my seat with the tension I felt. It also did make me think about the prospect of slow death if I was ever cast adrift in space. The 3D generally worked, although I found the objects being thrown at the audience became too distracting after a while. The three flaws for me were: (1) the dreadful music, (2) George Clooney and (3) the ‘re-birthing’ and spiritual/religious symbolism of the last third of the film.
I can see that each of these ‘flaws’ could be attributed to the commercial constraints facing Cuarón. I’m sure that I remember early discussions about this not being a ‘studio picture’ but instead some kind of ‘super indy’. With a budget of $100 million and a massive international roll-out, this seems like a blockbuster to me and therefore in need of various conventional touches. Clooney is a likeable star with a ‘big’ persona but the role in Gravity would have been better filled by a lesser-known actor who would not have drawn attention away from Sandra Bullock (an effective, restrained performance, I think). Space would be more ‘other’ and even more terrifying with only the ‘natural’ sounds of the space station or the diegetic music on the intercom.
The re-birthing symbolism is more problematic – Sandra Bullock is seen several times getting out of her spacesuit (like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis?) and coiling up in a foetal position. I guess much of the resonance of these scenes comes from 2001? My concern is that these images come as part of what is a general slide into a ‘Hollywood ending’ to the film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it did seem to me to be disappointing for a film which seems to promise something different. I’ve seen Gravity referred to as a ‘science fiction film’ but this does not seem helpful – action thriller seems the best description (Speed with Sandra Bullock would make an interesting comparison.)
Alfonso Cuarón showed in his best film, Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001) that he is capable of subverting the mainstream and that he can work effectively with genre repertoires as in Children of Men (US/UK/Japan 2006). Of course, Children of Men proved a difficult sell to audiences and dented Cuarón’s ‘bankability’ after his earlier success with a Harry Potter film. Gravity has restored his status, so something with more bite next time?
Alfonso Cuarón is a transnational filmmaker working in Mexico, the US or across Europe on international projects. I see that IMDB lists Gravity as simply a ‘US’ production. In fact it was co-produced with David Heyman in the UK (his company also co-produced the Harry Potter movies) and most of the studio work was completed at Shepperton. UK crews and facilities deserve some credit for the technical virtuosity of the film.