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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Jan 15, 2019

Roma: Alfonso Cuaron's Proust In Remembrances Of Things Past

ALFONSO CUARON is an acclaimed Mexican director whose breakout movie is “Y Tu Mama Tambien” in 2001, a road flick about two sexually obsessed young men that got several Oscar nominations. But before that, he has done more commercial projects in Hollywood like “A Little Princess” in 1995 and his own version of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” with Ethan Hawke in 1998 which he himself considers a failure. His other films include “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in 2004 and “Children of Men” in 2006. In 2013, he became the first Hispanic director to win the Oscar for “Gravity” starring Sandra Bullock.

Cuaron’s latest film, “Roma”, won him the best director award at the recent Golden Globes and the movie itself won the best foreign language film award. It was first shown at the Venice Filmfest last year and won the Golden Lion best picture award. It had a theatrical release then was shown streaming on Netflix. When you watch it, it immediately becomes apparent that it is the director’s ode to his own personal experiences while growing up in the Roma district of Mexico in 1969 to 1971.  Cuaron is the true auteur here as he also wrote, produced, lensed and edited “Roma”.
The movie is also a personal tribute to their househelp, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, who has no previous acting experience.) She is treated by their middle class family with kindness, like she’s really a member of their own family. The mother is Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and the dad, a doctor, is Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and they have three sons, Tonio, Paco and Pepe, and one daughter, Sophie, who are all close to Cleo, including the grandmother (Veronica Garcia). The movie chronicles the day-to-day details of family living. We see Cleo cleaning the house and taking good care of the children.

The most amazing thing in the movie is Cuaron’s spectacular and breathtaking camera work as his own cinematographer. Shot in evocative black and white, it totally immerses the viewer into the film’s detailed mise en scene. You can palpably sense that Cuaron is bringing back his youthful memories to life. The whole neighborhood, the street where the family lives, even the very house itself, all come alive in the vibrant long takes and precise camera positioning and movements that make them characters in their own way. We slowly feel that we became part of this ordinary neighborhood with ordinary people and situations.

You get this genuine sense of being there and part of all the sights and sounds, including the family dog and his poop on the driveway. And every now and then, nature intrudes and we have an earthquake, a hail storm and a wildfire in the countryside just as they’re about to meet the new year 1970.

The period street scenes are so involving, even the way Cuaron includes ambulant vendors, a marching band, other pedestrians. You get the feeling that we are being soaked fully in preparation for later events that will have a stronger impact. You get to care for and get connected with the characters in a manner that is not forced or manipulated. Without that bonding, we won’t be able to feel for the characters when something truly dramatic happens to them.

First is when the father suddenly leaves the family. That scene where the wife goes out with him into the street as he leaves them (it turns out for another woman) and she gives him a tight goodbye hug for the last time, is so heart rending. And when Cleo gets pregnant and her heartless boyfriend abandons her, you also can’t help but be moved since it’s all presented without any cloying melodrama.

The boyfriend is clearly a heel from the start, starting at the time when they’re about to make love in a hotel room where he does some martial arts moves while totally naked in front of Cleo who is waiting for him in bed, up to the time that Cleo pays him a visit at the dusty outskits of the city and he maltreats her, telling her never to see him again. The movie culminates in the infamous Corpus Christi massacre in Mexico City on June 10, 1971 where about 120 people were killed in an uprising by students against the government.

Cleo meets her asshole of a boyfriend once again in this vital sequence where his radical political beliefs become clear to her while he’s pointing a gun at her inside a department store. Her water breaks and she’s taken to a hospital, ending in tragedy. That scene where she is delivering the baby is taken with the camera just stationary and we see everything happening in the background while Cleo is lying down in front of us.

The film also is a tribute to the sisterhood of two women who experience heartbreak and pain. They start with Sofia as the boss and Cleo as the maid. But as the men in their lives give them pain and trouble, they become united in their struggle for maternal duties and sheer survival. When Cleo gets pregnant, Sofia doesn’t reprimand her at all but even brings to her own doctor for pre-natal care.

Sofia tries to hide the tuth about her husband from their children but once, when she’s talking to him on the phone, a son eavesdrops and discovers the truth. When she sees him by the door, she slaps the boy but immediately regrets it and hugs him, crying while Cleo is looking at them. This is an unforgettable scene. And that scene on the beach, after Cleo saves Sofia’s two sons from drowning (another very long take beautifully shot) then Cleo breaks down about her real feelings on having her baby, is so touching.

This is Cuaron’s personal love letter to Roma in Mexico, to his mother, grandmother and, most of all to their domestic helper who stood by them. We should all thank him for sharing it with us.