An elegantly-shot, black-and-white, English-subtitled Oscar contender is Alfonso Cuarón's new film "Roma." (Cuarón is known for "Children of Men," "Gravity," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"). The story is about a young woman named Cleo, a domestic servant and nanny to a young family with four children in the "Roma " neighborhood of Mexico City in 1971. She has much more of an indigenous look while the family is extremely fair.
A LOVE LETTER TO WOMEN
More than anything, this film is a "slice of life," a love letter to women and a celebration of quotidian life in the midst of the shocking abandonments of women and children by men. Or rather it's about women being "left alone" with the children while men pursue false ideals and dreams. But nothing is dull, nothing is formulaic, nothing is stereotypical in this telling. Women are resilient, women are resourceful, women survive, women are the glue that holds everything together. (Later in the film we find out that feisty, passionate Mom is actually a biochemist, and it's obvious she also loved her husband, it's just that he loved something else more.)
The film progresses with a gentle, quasi-sleepy rhythm--almost unfolding in real time--and we are enchanted by the wide angles and long shots of a well-appointed home, streets filled with dogs and rag-tag marching bands, fields, beaches and wherever else the boisterous family finds themselves. There are only two settings that feel narrow and congested: the garage into which the Ford Galaxy barely fits (and scrapes, if Mom's driving) and the servants' kitchen and quarters. The entire mise-en-scène is mesmerizing and captures the slower pace but also more energized human interaction of just a half a century ago. (I was told to see this film in the theaters, and how I regret that I didn't!)
There is NO music in "Roma," only some of the richest and most realistic ambient sounds you've ever heard in a film. The DeMille-sized cast of thousands feels intimate and personal (no actor is ever a prop to this director), the screen teeming with life, peopled and populated, filled and subdued. There is unbelievable attention to detail, without ever overemphasizing any one detail, without ever being self-conscious, precious, precocious, twee or squee. There are many of life's giggle-inducing moments that, I'm certain, evinced hearty chuckles among movie lovers in the theaters I did not go see this film in.
If we are waiting for something violent or intrusive to happen, we shall wait in vain. The only intrigue is the mystery brewing when Dad leaves on a business trip and is delayed in returning.
CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE, TOO
There is one unexpected scene of prolonged full-frontal male nudity. Cleo's boyfriend performs a fierce martial arts routine for her, naked as a jaybird. There is not even a hint of female nudity in the film. Why is this? I'm really wondering if it has something to do with fertility. All the children in the film are the result of a man initiating new life...but then disconnecting from his own offspring (and thereby, himself) (Malachi 4:6).
Children are real characters with budding lives of their own, with age-appropriate dialogue and behavior, but of course this is 1971, before DMDRE (Digital Media Devices Ruined Everything). The organic relationship of mothers, grandmothers and female caregivers with their male and female progeny is truly organic and refreshing to behold. This is also a story about the dignity of children, and could easily have been entitled: "Women and Children."
Rather than glibly treating profoundly sad events with a light touch, Cuarón does delve into the depths a bit (but it's hard to contemplate emotions when the only semi-close-ups will be of Cleo's face). Instead, "Roma" reminded me of Viktor Frankl's dictum that the last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any given situation. Mom and Cleo turn travesty into "a new adventure" for the kids...and themselves.
Life is peppered with both calmly and urgently uttered prayers--a pre-emptive and reflexive reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
If you read about Cuarón's life, it becomes evident that "Roma" is reconstructed snatches from the recent past of a place in Mexico he is very familiar with, having grown up exactly there at exactly this time in history. There are recurring side-themes of water, airplanes, militarization/revolution.
Once in a great while, a man attempts to make a film from a woman's perspective, a film to honor women's experience--and gets it right. The visually-stunning "Roma" is one of those films.