WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the film Roma. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read on! And if you haven’t seen it, why not? It’s over on Netflix now!
2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.
In July of 2018, Alfonso Cuarón released the first teaser trailer to his long awaited Gravity follow up. It was a deceptively simple video. Rich, black and white cinematography captures nothing more than a floor, being flooded with soapy water by an unseen presence off screen. The title of the film, some laurels from its selection to some festivals, and Cuarón’s name were all else it contained. But that minute-long morsel disguises just how much that water would end up meaning to us by the time this movie finishes.
Some people say that Roma “doesn’t really have a plot” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Cleo, a young Mixtec maid working for a family in Mexico City in the 1970s, deals with an unexpected pregnancy from an absent father, while at the same time her boss deals with her own kind of loss, in the form of her husband walking out on them. Of course, there are plenty of side threads. But it shouldn’t matter. Sometimes, we can let a great plot cloud our idea of what is needed for a good movie. I think Infinity War got caught up with that; it had so many characters and plot points, it forgot to flesh any of them out or take care to shoot each one equally and it was clear a lot of things ended up on the cutting room floor. (I realize now this is the second post in a row in which I’ve criticized Infinity War. I promise it won’t happen again, I’m just still somewhat confused what happened in that movie leading up to the snap. Like, what was large Peter Dinklage’s purpose even? But I digress.)
What Roma lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in world building and production design. The extreme attention to detail is absolutely mind boggling. They rebuilt Mexico City on a production lot. Those shots of Cleo and Adela running through the streets to get to the movie theater and meet with their boyfriends? That’s all a backlot, those are all extras, and every bit of that scene was built or bought from scratch to complete the aesthetic. Building the family home on a soundstage was not enough, nor was renting a home. No, they saved a home from demolition to rebuild it inside and out from Cuarón’s memory. Not even a parking lot next to an abandoned soccer stadium was enough to control his vision.
Shot personally by Cuarón personally, the movie is a feat of cinematography. Shot in black and white, the movie is not nominated for best editing, probably because it’s not obvious editing. The movie is filled with long shots, that let you take in the whole scene without always revealing everything. Case in point: my favorite scenes of the movie.
A pregnant Cleo goes with Teresa, Sofía’s mother, and another servant to get a crib and other furniture for the baby. They park on the streets and walk, nonchalantly, through a student protest to get to the furniture store. Soon after, chaos reigns. Shots ring out on the street, and a terrified couple come in, seeking shelter. Counterprotesters come in, seeking to shoot the students. We’re so caught up, watching the brutal slayings of these terrorized students, that we barely even see the out of focus gun being pointed at Teresa and Cleo. It isn’t until Cuarón pans his camera that we see that the gunman is Fermín, the father of Cleo’s child.
This is enough to breaks Cleo’s water. At the hospital, we see concerned doctors crowd around Cleo, worried about something unnamed. They rush her into a surgery suite, frantically calling for pediatrics. In a stunning four minute and eleven second unbroken shot, we see Cleo give birth, watch doctors attempt to resuscitate the stillborn, and later see her visceral reaction as the doctor tells her that her baby girl was born dead, and then tear the lifeless infant from Cleo’s arms and wrap her in cloth. Only Cleo is in focus, in a scene that, if it didn’t give so much away, would be all that would be needed for Yalitza Aparicio’s Oscar reel. The doctors CPR attempts are out of focus, and the nurse catching the baby, sewing Cleo up, and informing her of what’s happening is unshown. But Cuarón knows that not everything being heard must be seen on screen. He is an adept enough filmmaker to know what to focus on.
Cuarón clearly put so much thought into the movie. It’s obvious every shot, every event, the symbolic, repeated presence of water and chaos and the overwhelming ubiquity of women was meticulous. Most directors, even those of his caliber and experience, are never as sure and dedicated as Cuarón is here. And thank god for it. It imbues the movie with a sense of purpose that overcomes any deficit of plot. It gives it a timeless quality. This is not some shoddy production made in response to politics or a sense of a trend within the industry. This is a labor of love, and an ode to childhood and a time gone by that few can muster without falling into camp or debilitating nostalgia. And it’s a movie that no other mainstream, traditional studio is willing to make.
A crowing achievement for cinematography, indigenous representation, and the pros of the seemingly endless stream of money coming out of streaming services, Roma is a revelation. Like it or not, few, if any, traditional movie studios would be willing to spend this amount of money on a foreign film starring unknown and first time actors, forget about any of its other handicaps (namely it’s black and white cinematography and its centering of an indigenous woman, revolutionary for an industry which was booing Sacheen Littlefeather off the stage at the Oscars 46 years ago).
It’s possible that we’ll see harmful effects of the centering of money and talent on a few sites several years down the line. But for now, we need to know how remarkable it is that this can happen, that a foreign film can be so widely loved and even more widely seen. It has only happened once before, for a movie with a similar budget and which also received ten Oscar nominations. Roma probably never made anywhere near what it made (although Netflix won’t even release its box office numbers, its been deduced that Roma has probably made $3 million), but it doesn’t need to. It has no money to make back, no studio looking for profits or for an opportunity for a sequel. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made stars out of Ang Lee and Michelle Yeoh. Roma should have the opportunity to do the same, just in a more modern way.