Life Is an Ocean

Film review: Roma (Director: Alfonso Cuarón)

By Sascha Krieger

It might not be a co-incidence that two of the three A festivals‘ winners in 2018 dealt with the question what it means to be a family. In Shoplifters, winner of Cannes‘ Palme d’or, Hirokazu Kore-eda lovingly portrayed a makeshift family breaking all of society’s rules to uphold one of its professed core values. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, awarded with Venice’s Golden Lion, the family is more traditional: mother, father, four children – and a servant doubling as an improvised nanny. Cuarón looks back at his own childhood – and pays homage to his family’s real centre piece: Liboria Rodriguez, called Libo, to whom the film is dedicated, an indigenous woman working in the Cuarón household and more of a second mother to Alfonso and his siblings. Roma’s version is called Cleo but she, too, remains a steady presence in a world, big and small, in which certainty’s seem to be disappearimng at an alarming pace. The father leabves the family – not on a work assignement as pretended initially – but for another woman, while 1970 Mexico is rattled by civil unrest and the backlash from an increasingly authoritarian government.

The film, in contrast, is a miracle of calm and balance. It opens with water being poured on a hallway floor, several times, in repeating shots before the camera slowly moves away and out into the open, revealing a slightly wider world. This is a mainstay of the film: the camera exploring the rooms it is in in a quietly sweeping, naturally flowing movement, just like time itself. Whether it thus discovers the interior of the family house or the busy streets of Mexico city, a furniture store turned location of a murder or an oceanside beach, a bustly hospital or the grounds of a hacienda transformed into a shooting range: Galo Olivares‘ camera is a calm eye opening up the world as if seen for the first time. Shot in crisp, clean black and white rich in contrast, it records a past remembered, re-imagined, newly created. The perspectives is at the same time highly intimate and distant. It comes close to faces, rooms, bodies and yet it can never really enter them. Cleo particularly remains close and remote at the same time. She doesn’t talk much, doesn’t reveal a lot, but her hovering near the family’s centre yet always aware of her position tells a fascinating story in herself.

For her position is fragile: she is continually made aware of her being a paid hand, an outsider, yet drawn into the inner circle whenever needed. Especially her relationship with abandoned wife Sofía is mesmerising: her employer gives orders, even yells at her but draws her is when she needs support – and when Cleo does. As she is left alone, the women – completed by the stern, kind, quiet grandmother – form a bond to keep the family together, abandoned by the men and in the middle of social turmoil. Cleo is left , too, pregnant, quietly finding her own strength – as witnessed in an almost surreal scene when she looks on to a group of martial arts students who are being shown a seemingly easy posture by the instructor. Yet all fail to copy it – except Cleo, quietly looking on. Her gaze never waivers, not when she witnesses a paramilitary murder, not when an earthquake hits a hospital where she is looking at newborns. Only when she loses her own child, she shuts down. It is then she is gently coaxed back into life by the family resulting in  climactic moment of crisis narrated in the same by-the-way tone as everything else.

Roma is in many ways more of a poem, an elegy, propelled with the slow yet steady and powerful rhythm of the ocean waves that can kill and give life at the same time, as witnessed near the film’s end, it reflects about the fragile complexity of human relationships, focusing on Cleo’s ambivalent position, creating an impression of her being inside and outside at the same time and at all times. Her relations with the children are depicted as fleetingly as the camera moves through the world often leaving its objects out of sight. it re-imagines and remembers but does not re-enact, moving through its story as if through a dream, or a vision, or a fairy-tale. This is Roma’s magic trick: presence and absence are the same thing, closeness and distance, too.

This perfectly sums up the ambiguous state of Cleo who is emblematic of wider issues which the film – following its camera’s direction slowly and gently opens up to: the status of women in a world not built for them and that of those on the fringes of society, those regarded as minorities (Cleo is an indigenous woman balancing in the nowhere land between both worlds. The film is keenly observed portrait of society, its dynamics, its mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, in the wider sense as well as in the family nucleus. It is also an homage to a specific woman and to women in general, to stubborn perseverance, rebellious love, infallible spirit, recorded and remembered by a film maker well aware of his privileged status, conscious of the hubris it would mean for him to pretend to enter his subjects‘ minds, especially Cleo’s. This is why she remains so distant, wonderfully portrayed by amateur actress Yalitza Aparicio, and at the same time so close – brought to life by love, hers, the family’s, the director’s, the viewers. The film is a slow, mesmerisingly beautiful meditation on humanity, not with the esoteric, cosmic sweep of Terrence Malick, but with the sure-handed story-telling ability of a magician discovering the magic powers of memory. On account of the film being distributed by Netflix, its cinematic release was very limited. But while one might regret not having had much of a chance to see it on the big screen it will work its power on screens of any size.

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