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A Writer Watches Roma in Mexico City

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” deals with a typical family of the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City of the early 1970s during a period when their absent, philandering father abandons them. The film is told through the eyes of domestic worker Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of the two pillars that keeps this group from totally falling apart, as she goes through her own epic struggles. This family and their experiences are based on director Cuarón’s very own, even setting the action in his own childhood home (practically giving his old address away in the process). But by changing their names he avoids the usual complaints of some biographies where the players don’t necessarily resemble their real life counterparts and it doesn’t matter if he sticks completely to actual facts. Case in point, I have my doubts that Cuaron’s grandmother was really present during the “Halconazo” police oppression of 1971 but by making her part of a fictional family, it couldn’t matter less.

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“Roma” is what I call a bookends movie, with the same image of a plane’s reflection on the water opening and closing the film. “Roma” displays the south sector of that neighborhood in what was perhaps its last time period when it was still a rather idyllic place to live. With kids playing in the streets and families attending classy cinemas that provided big movie openings, as well as the more modest ones that resided at the bottom of the movie listings and were full of colorful characters, where celluloid usually arrived in questionable condition. As “Roma” conveys, even in a family where the source of income had become erratic, the family still had two housekeepers and a chauffeur on the payroll, something that would not have been unusual at the time. Sadly, houses turned into businesses, streets turned into quasi-freeways, the arrival of the subway and a couple of earthquakes sent more of these families who had been there for decades to newer, more habitable areas of the city. Many sectors of the neighborhood are hard to recognize these days.

“Roma” has drawn comparisons to the Italian neorealism dramas that dealt with lower class struggles and inspired the over-the-top dramatic Pedro Infante movies here in México, but Cuaron’s film, no matter how powerful, is much more subdued than melodramatic. It reminds me the most of Asghar Farhadi’s great “A Separation” in tone and style. I found “Roma” even more intense, dealing with a much wider range of events, and told with more innovative cinematic techniques.

By nature, all motion pictures are manipulative to one degree or the other but “Roma” firmly belongs at the opposite end of the spectrum from any Rocky sequel. Here may lie the reason why its impact is so powerful. As a member of the audience it is plain to see that there are practically no strings being pulled on you from above, so when you find yourself face to face with this much hardship, it becomes almost unbearable.

“Roma” is one the most devastating films I have ever seen. Not only does it include the saddest scene ever put on screen but also a second one (after a movie showing) that doesn’t lag too far behind. These sequences are presented by the director plainly, with no shock value intended. Through life, I’ve only found myself covering my open mouth in disbelief twice, and the other one was while watching a TV screen on 9/11. Needless to say, this is first time this has ever happened to me in any movie, and it did so on two separate occasions. Still, Cuarón’s film also happens to be inspiring and at times very funny. Even when some parts are almost impossible to take, I still found myself leaving the theater with a sense of elevation.

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Everyone here in México who has just watched “Roma” first seems to bring up the details that remind them of their early years, and with good reason, but the film is so much more than just a nostalgia fest. The one quality that really sets it apart is a sense of truth in every frame, and that is a main reason why it is so affecting. This is not only a comment about its authenticity but you can rest assured that most everything you see on screen about that particular time, place and period is fairly accurate. That is the exact kind of soft boiled egg with crackers kids would have had for breakfast. That is the right Chocolate mix (Pancho Pantera’s Choco milk). Those are the lullabies that children were taught for before going to bed and for playing in the rain. Those are the radio station identifier jingles and songs that each social group would have listened to then. That is the exact way some people would reacted during an earthquake (on their knees). Those are indeed the dumb TV comedies that made us laugh uncontrollably as children. And yes, a movie like the hilarious “La Fuga Fantástica” (“La Grande Vadrouille”) would have been playing at local theaters at that time (for a while there, it was the consensus pick from kids my age as the funniest movie ever made, that is until “What’s Up, Doc?” came along a couple of years later).

Still, I do have a couple of observations on the film’s veracity. When it comes to the cinema sequence, that French comedy was just too funny as to receive so little reaction from that audience (it’s a fair bet Cuarón added its projection on post-production) and I’m pretty sure that smoking had already been banned inside theaters by that time, as I can recall my own father taking a cigarette break in the middle of most every movie. Further, when Cleo picks one of the kids at the kindergarten, that shot cries for at least a couple of mothers picking up their kids while sporting big curls on their hair (as they invariably did in those days) and the guy with the ice cream cart always wore a short-sleeved shirt and white, military style hat (he was a fixture at the neighborhood for decades to come). At any rate, I realize this is a movie, not a historical document.

Cuarón also succeeds in making it feel that the movie’s events come from real life. There’s just something about them that should ring true to anyone, anyplace. Take for instance the fight between the brothers that the grandma is unable to stop before it gets way out of hand. The father’s personal car horn, morse-code blast used to advise Cleo to open the garage door. The carefree attitude in the schools of the past where doors were left wide open for anyone to enter and leave as they pleased (these days most school gates look like something out of a fortress). It couldn’t have been easy for director Cuarón to be so honest with such scenes as the one where Cleo runs into the family patriarch happily enjoying the night streets with another woman, or when an acquaintance unexpectedly hits on the mother (Marina de Tavira) at a time where her own heroic disposition was limited to simply avoiding falling apart entirely. Still, both of these instances couldn’t feel truer.

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The humor and the horror in “Roma” derive from life, and that gives them special resonance. I loved the very natural way we slowly come to realize that the family’s car may have been too wide to fit between those trucks, and how the joke keeps progresses every time the mother parks the car in accordance to her own very varying moods, with the image of a compact car (purchased a little too late) as the final punch line. Then there’s the unforgettable sight at the ranch of the oddest pet cemetery you will ever see, one so outlandish it just has to be real. Even the bizarre sequence where Cleo’s monstrous boyfriend is introduced reminded me of the way Tilda Swinton’s character is first presented in “Michael Clayton,” by immediately telling you volumes about someone with very little information. Additionally, I was also struck by the odd sequence at the end of the movie where Cuarón conveys which items in the house the father felt like belonged to him (with incredible chutzpah), revealing so much about the kind of guy he had been all along. Here you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Many of Cuaron’s usual directing traits can be found all over "Roma." Like “Gravity” before it, the film has at least four impossible long takes (though I’m sure more will be revealed in repeated viewings). The most impressive ones being the “Halconazo” riot, a sequence where two of the main characters witness a brutal oppression and a point-blank shooting (and their evening is just getting started!). There’s also the final scene at the sea (an absolute classic!) that starts with a nagging feeling that something is just not right while slowly building to an intolerable fever pitch. I have no idea how in the world Cuarón accomplished the coordinated interaction between his actors and the very violent sea where the danger is unmistakable, all the while providing all these perfect vistas in every frame. 

There’s also a big special effects money shot that comes when the family decides to go to the movies at the great Cine Las Americas of old (where I hadn’t been since the early nineties until my viewing of “Roma” this week). This sequence take place in a large avenue that includes long extinct trolleys and the surrounding buildings that are technically still there, but look nothing like they did then. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of research that scene required for something that only few people will be able to fully appreciate, but it tells you something about Cuarón’s level of care for authenticity. Aside from some omissions in the theater’s lobby and the houses leading to the large avenue (surely filmed elsewhere) the design of the setting is, as far as I can remember, just about impeccable.

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Cuarón decided to tell his story mostly through visuals, with every frame in the movie a work of art by itself. “Roma” takes its time immersing the audience, as Cuaron constantly panning the camera horizontally at a constant speed, towards one side and then to the other. By shooting it this way, he is inviting us to stare at a window into the past as we witness life unfolding, randomly and unexpectedly. Little by little and soon enough I found myself completely immersed in this film, often too close for comfort. Cuaron’s filming techniques do wonders at movie theater with large screens but I fear that much like with “Gravity,” “Roma’s” home experience will tend to be minimized when watched on Netflix at home and not just because of a smaller screen size but due to the fact that any interruptions might easily break the director's spell. 

Curiously enough, the last film I watched before this one was the Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man.” Even though it did recreate several landmarks in the astronaut’s life that helped explain his behavior, I found it disappointing because it barely scratched the surface on the man. I felt never I got to know him, resulting in a sense of irrelevance when he accomplishes one of humanity’s biggest feats. On the other hand, my latest trip to the cinema allowed me to meet the little, seemingly unremarkable Cleo that once anyone gets to know, will never forget. In other words, when it comes to movie history a giant life figure was mostly rendered irrelevant, while this small girl became an unforgettable cinematic character.

I have always said it is not a good idea to bestow the title of Great Movie on any feature you just saw. It’s not a coincidence that the Vatican and the Baseball Hall of Fame share the same five-year waiting period before bestowing immortality. Still while watching the credits at the end of “Roma” there was no denying the obvious: this is the best film I’ve seen in years. I also have the feeling that if Roger was still with us, his review and Great Movie essay about “Roma” wouldn’t have stuck to any kind of waiting period. 

On a personal level, it’s impossible not to get a kick out of the fact that our little, mostly ordinary neighborhood has been immortalized in a truly memorable film. In the future, the sound of its name will conjure a mythical sense of sorts, perhaps evoked through those gorgeous title letters displayed on the credits. 

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