By Mariana Sánchez Gaona
BU News Service
BOSTON — A high pitch whistle announces the camotes vendor rolling down the street. A broom scrubbing the floors, the waves of the ocean, the broadcast of an old Mexican comedy show, the Mixtec language all create the score of “Roma.” Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, inspired by his childhood, is a deep dive into Mexico’s sounds.
The story revolves around Cleo, played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, a domestic worker who’s also the children’s caretaker. She lives in a room outside the main family house, with Adela (Nancy García), another young housekeeper. They communicate in Mixtec, an indigenous language.
The movie is named after the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up in, known as “La Roma.” The black-and-white film recreates Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cuarón, who doubled as the cinematographer, lets the action play in wide scenes, which are better appreciated in a movie theater.
However, the story feels intimate. The audience gets to watch a family struggling with new changes, while Cleo’s life takes an unexpected turn. The movie flows seamlessly from scene to scene. The journey is a critical portrait of class in Mexico.
A middle-class family takes in a young woman from Oaxaca to be their housekeeper. She cleans after the family, wakes the children up, kisses them goodnight and takes them to school. When Cleo sits with them in front of the television, she is part of the family — until a reminder to bring chamomile tea gets her to her feet.
The blurry line between family and employer allows them to forget the tangled relationship between a loved one and an employee. And how easy it is to mistreat them or fire them. The story of Cleo, based on Liboria Rodríguez’s life, is not uncommon.
However, a class discussion in Mexico is plagued with resentments and lack of awareness. The Mexican film and television industry lacks people who look like Aparicio. When a domestic worker’s story is told, she is played by a white actress who is rescued by a rich guy in a soap opera.
Background has always been important to Cuarón, especially in his 2006 film “Children of Men,” in which he made the atmosphere a chilling critique of immigration. In “Roma,” the political climate depicted in the backdrop comes to the fore with the “Halconazo” student massacre of 1971.
Mexico’s fraught relationship with its governments is a long history of oppression. The country might seem like a democratic nation in the past, but it was ruled by the same political party (Revolutionary Institutional Party) for 71 years. Mexico has gone through many similar tragedies. The backdrop of the movie is as relevant now as it was then.
The film was shot in the director’s childhood home. Nobody other than him read the script. During the New York Film Festival press conference this year, he said he gave the scenes to his actors at the start of the shooting day. He even gave actors contradicting directions to wait for the reaction. He wanted to emulate the chaos of life, how they would react to uncertainty.
The “Gravity” director was not sure about how the movie would turn out. He applied the impractical technique of shooting the movie in chronological order. It helped the actors connect the dots of their characters’ arc. But even in the editing room, he didn’t have a clear idea of the end result.
The movie showed his mastery in storytelling. The cinematography has the influence of his long-time collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, of prioritizing natural light. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it’s nominated for the 2019 Golden Globes for Best Foreign-Language Film. The movie has a limited release in the U.S. and it will be available on Netflix on Dec. 14.
“Existence is nothing but a shared experience of loneliness,” Cuarón said in the NYFF press conference to describe the movie. “Roma” is a portrait of life, Mexican life, a moving tale of loving relationships and a commentary of Mexico’s class problem.