Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Roma: Women and Children First

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a simple film in terms of its storytelling, but nonetheless it packs a wallop. This evocation of Cuarón’s own childhood in a section of Mexico City, circa 1971, centers on the woman who seems (to get literary about it) to represent what T.S. Eliot has called “the still point of the turning world.” Not that Cleo would ever have heard of the famous poet. A small, compact figure recruited from the Mexican countryside to serve the family of an affluent doctor, she is quiet, stoic, and possibly illiterate. (With the household cook, she casually alternates between Spanish and her native Mixtec tongue.) Without complaint, she tends to the  family’s four rambunctious young children, cleans up after the household pets, trudges to the rooftop to do laundry, and is a silent witness to the widening rift between husband and wife. She still, though, has time for a private life. In her free hours, she goes to the movies, and is courted by a young man who shows off (in the nude) his expertise in martial arts. As she watches him from a rumpled bed, her eyes glow with placid contentment.

But this is a film filled with premonitions of disaster: an earthquake, a near-collision, a mysterious fire, and a bloody riot (known to history as the Corpus Christi Massacre), in which the police mow down leftwing agitators on the streets and in the shops of Roma. So we quickly expect the worst for Cleo. When she confesses her pregnancy, her boyfriend quickly vanishes. Surprisingly, the mistress of the house accepts her situation with equanimity, and even kindness. Cleo is clearly too valuable to the family to be turned out on moral grounds.

This middle-class doctor’s wife seems a harsh figure at first, but it’s soon clear she has troubles of her own. In fact, I found her role quite a fascinating one. She too knows what it’s like to be betrayed by the man she loves. Her agitation is revealed in her disastrous driving (and parking) ineptitude, but she has a heroic side as well, stifling her personal grief in order to protect her children’s innocence. Life without father, she insists to them, will be an adventure! She makes this statement at a seaside resort where Cleo—in a suspenseful scene breathtaking in its power—will risk everything for those same children. Her love for them, we feel, is what allows her to keep on keeping on.

Servitude is for Cleo both a necessity and an ingrained sense of her place in the natural order. It is also, at the best of times, a labor of love. When, at rare intervals, she feels herself loved in return, all’s right with the world. The love she inspires shows up in the film’s on-screen dedication to a woman who was Cuarón’s real-life childhood nanny. She’s doubtless long gone now, but it’s touching that Cuarón remembers so vividly what she brought to his life. (As another real-life  story of a boy and a servant, Tony Kushner’s Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change makes a fascinating contrast.)

Cuarón puts his personal stamp on Roma in many artful ways.  Aside from directing a first-time lead actress, he wrote, produced, and co-edited this film, also serving as its director of cinematography. Part of the film’s beauty lies in its look: the austere black and white photography, the incisive editing, the sound design. I don’t remember ever seeing a film in which ambient noise played so large a role. Roma transports us to Mexico City in the 1970s, and deep into our own memory banks.  

Happy holidays to my readers. God bless us, every one. 

No comments:

Post a Comment