The main theme in Alfonso Cuaròn’s epic Romais that life is shit. Especially if you are a woman. From the title sequence where water is being sloshed over a floor, to the recurring metaphor of piles of dog turds that the maid Cleo has to constantly clear up, the message is clear.
It is 1971 in Mexico and there is political and social unrest. At the heart of the film is the story of two women, who both suffer respective losses. Despite their differences in social class there is stronger bond that draws them together, despite all their respective misfortunes.
Cleo works for an upper middle-class doctor and his wife; she is part of the family, loved and yet taken advantage of, always slavishly busy. The family serves as a microcosm of the tumultuous events that are taking place outside the compound: the husband goes away to Canada on an unnaturally long business trip and never returns. We later learn that he has absconded with his mistress and is living round the corner.
Senora Sofia is left to cope with her gaggle of unruly children – but of course she is not alone for it is Cleo who bears the brunt of the desertion. Another beautifully observed metaphor reveals itself in Senor Antonio’s meticulous parking of the family Oldsmobile; no sooner has he left than Sofia dings it at every opportunity.
Roma is strongly autobiographical, with 90% of the events being recreated from Cuaròn’schildhood recollections – including seeing the space movie Maroonedwhich later inspired him to make Gravity (nice in-joke). Memory and passion explain Cuaròn’smasterful touch in creating this extraordinary visual feast.
Shot in black and white, with Cuaròn directing both film and cinematography, he recreates a vibrant canvas of 1970s Mexico City – the actual location, explaining the constant appearance of aeroplanes – from the posh suburb Colonia Roma where the family live, to the outer slums and, most impressively, the Corpus Christi massacre. The hospital scenes were filmed using real doctors and nurses and the most harrowing episode was done in a single take, making watching almost as painful as the on-screen action. To recreate the house, Cuaròn called on his family and assembled all their furniture to achieve the authenticity required. A stickler for detail.
His success lies the unusual camera angles and the long, panning shots which lead us through the crowds to the heart of the action and which, as he himself says is ‘the ghost of the present that is visiting the past, without getting involved, just observing, not trying to make a judgment or commentary’. Although it is hard not to feel that he is neutral when we see the hacienda owner drinking and joking while the forest burns and everyone else is -literally – all hands to the pump. Perhaps he is just pointing out the social injustices of the time when he shows us careless profligacy of the landed and the rich in stark contrast to the lives of the poor, leaving us to make our own judgments.
Cleo, the strong centre of the film, is not professional actor.Yalitza Apariciois a natural, despite, or perhaps, because of this. From humble background herself, it must have been easy for her to assume the role of a servant whole life revolves round her family, as surrogate parent to the children. There are some heartfelt scenes especially with the youngest boy with whom she has long conversations about being dead, and when he was ‘old’ and what he did in those lives. Amazingly Cuaròn was the only person who knew the script and the scenes with the result that much of the dialogue is improvised, adding to its authenticity, and to its sense of chaos, encapsulated when he says, ‘that’s exactly what life is like: it’s chaotic and you can’t really plan how you’ll react to a given situation’.
There is so much to this film that cannot be put into words. You simply have to see it for yourself!