With the premiere of Alfonso Cuarón's Netflix-acquired Roma, the Venice film festival effectively told Cannes: "Stop fussing about the format. Focus on the film." For if this isn't CINEMA, then what is? The press booklet called Roma "[Cuarón's] most personal project to date." I don't know about "most personal." Every time I watch Y Tu Mamá También, this director's grandly intimate masterpiece whose subject is nothing less than life itself, I feel no one who doesn't feel genetically bonded to the material can come close to making something like this — the narrative seemed to spring from Cuarón's soul. But yes, Roma is certainly a personal project, in the sense of what Cuarón said in his director's statement: "[This] is an attempt to capture the memory of events that I experienced almost fifty years ago. It is an exploration of Mexico's social hierarchy… and, above all, it's an intimate portrait of the women who raised me…"
Several times, I was reminded of Fellini, who himself made a memory-piece movie named… Roma. (Amarcord was another.) The memorably funny segue to a nude man performing martial arts; the deadpan stretch where a fire in the woods is put out while very rich people sip champagne (and the inside of their huge house, where dead dogs are mounted on the walls)– it's all pure Fellini. There's even what appears to be a direct homage. The scene in a tunnel packed with cars is an image right out of the opening of Fellini's autobiographical 8½. But where Fellini's world was Romantic, Cuarón's is quasi-naturalistic. It isn't exactly neo-realism. But the martial arts scene with the nude man ends in a way that makes you feel bad for laughing at him a few seconds earlier.
Roma (in Spanish and Mixtec) chronicles a year in the lives of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City, and its protagonist is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, who's heartbreakingly good), a young domestic worker in an upper-middle class home. Without forcing the comparison, Cuarón gives us a scene where Cleo is singing along with a Mexican pop song as she does her chores, while her employer, a doctor, listens to Western classical music in his car, a monstrous Ford that barely fits into the parking space inside the home. This space is constantly littered with poop from the family's dog, and Cuarón gives us a close-up of turd being ground by the vehicle's wheel. This is how you make a Social Statement™, by deflating the Importance™ of the Message™. The man may be more "elevated" than Cleo in one sense, but when he steps out of his Mozart-filled car, dog shit awaits him. In Y Tu Mamá También, it was ejaculate. Cuarón, apparently, likes to ground the lives of the rich with recognizably human (or animal) functions.
But we don't see much of the father, who takes off to Canada on work. Roma, then, transforms into a duet between Cleo and the doctor's wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira). At first, Sofia comes across as a rich stereotype. At the breakfast table, she instructs Cleo not to give her young daughter (she also has three sons) more food, as the girl is, all evidence to the contrary, "growing fat." Another unthinking bit of cruelty — or at least, insensitivity — occurs when the family watches a comedy show on TV. Clearing the plates around them, Cleo's eyes are on the screen — she, too, sits down (on the floor beside the sofa) to watch the show. But a second later, Sofia asks her to get the doctor a cup of tea. It's how the maid-mistress relationship works — still, you wonder if Cleo is going to end up one of those tragically martyred heroines.
But gradually, we see what this relationship is really like, when Cleo is in trouble and Sofia consoles her (this time, Cleo sits on the sofa, beside Sofia). Outside, the country is in tumult. Student demonstrators are clashing with the government-backed militia. Death is everywhere. Sofia's older boy narrates an incident where a soldier shot a man in the head, and later, he and his brother play with toy guns. The younger son "plays dead," as does Cleo. (She is really close with the children.) Two children are in danger of being drowned. A child is stillborn (in a harrowing hospital scene). A man is shot dead in a furniture store. Plus, there's an actual earthquake. You even see relationships dying.
And inside, there is more tumult. The things that happen to Sofia and Cleo erase the class difference — (dog) shit happens to everyone. If the government has seized Cleo's mother's land in her village, Sofia, too, is seeing her carefully built world crumble down around her. Cuarón's film is light on plot. Instead, we get incidents that are seemingly about nothing until you pull back and see that they are little shards making up a mosaic. This is how you know you are in the presence of a great director. He conjures up a mood that's so evocative that we barely notice there isn't much that's happening in terms of what-next. Mood is the glue that binds all these images into a scrapbook.
Roma also makes the case that a great director possibly becomes greater if he serves as his own cinematographer. Cuarón shoots in gorgeous black and white — it was a privilege to watch this film on a big screen. (I hope your Netflix is connected to a really, really big TV.) Cuarón's signature move, here, is the unbroken tracking shot, sometimes flowing with the action, becoming a part of it, and sometimes parallel to the action, as though observing it. When he takes a shot from land to the sea and returns to land again, the sense is not of time being manipulated (which is how editing works) but of drifting along with time. It's beautiful. Jury president Guillermo del Toro has said he won't be showing any special favours to Cuarón, his countryman and friend. He doesn't have to. If Roma wins the Golden Lion, it's because it deserves to.
When it comes to awards, everyone's eyes will be on the Golden Lion, but the festival's collateral awards are probably more useful to the recipients. Two new collateral awards, this year, are the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) Award, which will go to three winning filmmakers from the Orizzonti section (Best Film, Best Director and the Special Jury Prize), and the Fundación Casa Wabi – Mantarraya Award, which will go to the winner of the Venice Award for a Debut Film. More than the recognition, the accompanying residency opportunities are priceless. The HFPA award includes a three-week long residency programme in Los Angeles — master classes, mentoring, workshops, the works. Remember this the next time you decide to scoff at the Golden Globes (which is is organised by the HFPA and likely pays for a lot of this).
The Fundación Casa Wabi – Mantarraya (Mexico) prize includes a month-and-a-half residency at Casa Wabi (Puerto Escondido). The awardee gets the opportunity to develop a project in collaboration with the artists in residence and nearby communities. Never heard of the Mantarraya Group, one of the most influential film production companies in Mexico? Never mind. You've surely heard of some of the filmmakers who owe their careers to the Group's initiatives, like Carlos Reygadas, whose three-hour Nuestro Tiempo is a Competition entry this year. If that film proves as good as Roma, will del Toro face a… Mexican standoff?