Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF: "Roma"

Michael Hayward

Mexico in the late 1960s and early 70s was the scene of widespread social unrest and repression: dozens of student protestors killed in Mexico City by government forces just prior to the 1968 Olympics; thousands of acres of ejido (collective) land expropriated nationwide in 1970; further attacks on student demonstrators (the Corpus Christi massacre) the following year.

Alfonso Cuaron's new film, Roma, is set against this chaotic background, but rather than focussing his attention on these large-scale events, Cuaron choses instead to turn his camera inwards, taking viewers with him into a domestic world: a quiet and spacious upper middle class home in the leafy Colonia Roma neighbourhood, where Antonio, a doctor, and his wife Sophia, a biochemist, live with their four young children, and their dog. We see the family through the eyes of Cleo, one of the family's two live-in Mixteca housemaids; these two are the imperturbable forces who—quietly, efficiently, and without complaint—keep the household running on an even keel.

The opening scene of Roma is understated in the extreme, but you sense, nonetheless, that you're in expert hands. We're shown, in closeup, a grid of ordinary cement tiles—shades of grey, a range of subtle textures—against which the credits, in white, slowly ebb and flow. From off screen we hear an assortment of domestic sounds—a tap opens, water runs into a bucket, a single set of measured footsteps is heard moving from left to right, there's the scraping of a broom—and then a slow surf of suds and water washes into the frame from above. Eventually the camera pans upwards revealing: a paved carport, a servant, out of focus in back, washing the tiles. We realize that we're in the courtyard of a family home, and, as the camera continues to pan upwards, we are shown more of the home. The scene ends with a shot directly upwards, showing a rectangle of sky above the home's enclosed courtyard; a passenger jet moves slowly, almost soundlessly, across this patch of sky from right to left (Cuaron echos this shot at the end of the film).

Most of Roma is set within this domestic realm, at a remove from the outer world. The clashes and conflicts of that outer world are felt as muffled and distant perturbations, much as the breakers of a large surf would be felt as ripples on the outer edges of an adjacent lagoon. But the domestic setting has dramas of its own, which mirror the tensions of the wider world: the couple's relationship is fraught and failing, and Antonio, the father, soon leaves the home to live with his mistress; Cleo discovers herself to be pregnant, and her boyfriend, Firmin, disappears from her life when he is told the news.

Occasionally we are shown glimpses of the city and the countryside, and it is in these extended sequences where the complexity and the strength of Roma is fully on display. In one key scene, Cleo and the grandmother drive downtown to purchase a crib for Cleo's coming baby. There's idle talk of a student demonstration happening that day, and the traffic difficulties which will result. They park, and walk along the sidewalk, the camera tracking them, moving in parallel down the centre of the street. As the camera tracks them we see—moving across the frame in foreground and slightly out of focus—a line of parked trucks and buses, filled with uniformed figures, who lounge, bored, awaiting orders: these are the policemen who are to maintain order during the demonstration. It's a subtle bit of foreshadowing, an understated way of connecting a domestic event—shopping for a crib—to the dramatic events which will shortly unfold.

In another scene Sophia and the children (and Cleo) travel to the hacienda of a family friend for New Year's Eve. Through a series of extended vignettes we're shown the enormity of the divide which separates the classes: the spoiled landowners who lead lives of indolence and luxury, are contrasted with the villagers and other locals, dispossessed of land and livelihood, who are forced by circumstance into subservience. The cinematography throughout is gorgeous, displaying a richly-textured palette of black and white and greys, and the camera work is masterful.

Roma is Cuaron's 8th feature film, following the Oscar-winning Gravity in 2013 (Cuaron includes a clever nod to Gravity in Roma, when Cleo accompanies the family's children to the movies, where they watch a scene from the 1969 Gregory Peck science-fiction film Marooned: two space-suited astronauts floating helplessly, untethered, against the star-spangled backdrop of outer space). The change of focus between the two films is dramatic: from the science-fiction epic of Gravity, which featured a pair of highly-bankable Hollywood stars, with lavish amounts of money dispensed on spectacular CGI effects, to the intimate domestic drama of Roma: a feature film subtitled in not one, but two foreign languages (Spanish and Mixtecan), filmed in black-and-white, and with a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, cast in the pivotal role of Cleo. It is a powerful display of Cuaron's confidence and artistic reach.

The film's rollout has been a master-class in marketing, a major coup for Netflix, which bought distribution rights (and branded) the film. Stage 1 was a series of attention-getting and award-winning screenings at film festivals world-wide (Roma won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival). This strategy inevitably led (thanks, no doubt, to careful nourishment by Netflix public relations staff) to strong Oscar "buzz" for the film. Stage 2 has been a limited theatrical run in "selected theatres" nationwide (only at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, and in Toronto and Montreal). Stage 3 of the rollout is a Netflix-exclusive streaming engagement for the film, which allows Netflix to use Roma as a kind of "prestige lever" to encourage new subscribers to sign up for what is unquestionably the dominant streaming service of the day.

Roma is screening at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour Street, for a limited run starting on December 14th. Full info on showtimes can be found here. Yes: it will also be available on Netflix, but this is one film which truly deserves to be seen on the big screen.



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