Cuaron’s Childhood Memories Payoff for ‘Roma’
Photo courtesy AP Images. Alfonso Cuaron, left, is congratulated by Yalitza Aparicio, from second left, Margarita Martinez Merino and Marina de Tavirar, as he is announced the winner for best foreign language film for “Roma” at the Oscars on Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
BY GAIL PISCHAK
Alfonso Cuaron’s gamble to make a black and white period film about his childhood memories growing up in Roma, Mexico, paid off handsomely. The director won three Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards with wins for Best Director, Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography. I first saw “Roma” at last year’s Palm Springs Film Festival and then again in my film class with Professor Gladych. I watched it for a third time this past weekend with as much enthusiasm and awe as I experienced in the first viewing.
Cuaron’s opening sequence is a directorial signature and parallels the opening scene in “Gravity,” a film he also directed. For that reason alone, it’s worth watching this nostalgic and emotional trip down memory lane. Alfonso Cuaron’s memory lane is a vivid recalling of his youth growing up in a middle-class Mexican family and seeing the world change around him: his family breaks up, his housekeeper experiences a trauma that affects the family, and his beloved Mexico experiences turbulence that shakes the nation.
The movie is told through the eyes of the women in Cuaron’s life. Sofia, his mother, must cope with a husband who opts out of the family. She must protect and look after the children while dealing with her loss and grief. Cleo, the housekeeper, finds herself abandoned by a boyfriend who does not want to become a father. Both women face gut-wrenching decisions that mimic every women’s dilemmas. Meanwhile, the children, including Cuaron, live innocently and idyllically, unaware the women who love and care for them, are coping with a life they have yet to experience. Around them, Mexico is changing, and the country’s changes are a mirror reflection of the changes going on in the women.
Yalitza Aparicio, a schoolteacher by trade, found herself winning the lead role of Cleo, the family’s housekeeper. She plays this role with insightful sensitivity for a first-time actress. She knows her place as a domestic but transcends that traditional role to care for the children she loves. Her dialogue is sparse. She communicates with her eyes, her body, and surprisingly, most of all, her footsteps.
Marina de Tavira, an accomplished Mexican actress, plays Sofia, the children’s mother. Her emotional range is impressive as she plays a loving mother, compassionate employer of Cleo’s, and scorned woman. Both women, in different ways, are the glue that keeps the family together. If there is an antagonist, it’s the men of the film. Without exception, they leave. Life is gone to the women to manage.
What I enjoyed about this film was knowing how Alfonso Cuaron directed the film. He deserved to win Best Director for his meticulous effort. In an interview at the Palm Springs Film Fest, he talked about how he gave everyone their lines the day of the shoot. He didn’t want anyone trying to replicate his family. Instead, his wish was that through expressing authentic emotions for each scene, each actor would represent the essence of his family. An example he gave was giving Sofia, the mother, her lines and direction about how to manage the children getting ready for school. He then gave the children their lines and asked them to ignore everything their mother asked them to do. Camera. Action.
What took place when actors were given mixed messages were ad-lib moments that made the movie so precious and heartfelt. The other interesting fact about this movie is that his friend and colleague who does all his cinematography got sick just before the shoot. It forced Cuaron to become his cinematographer. Again, an inspired decision, since he also won the academy award for cinematography.
The standout moment is the ocean scene where Cleo, unable to swim, plunges into the roaring ocean waters to save two of the children from drowning. The pounding of the waves becomes deafening and mimics her pounding heart as she desperately searches for the children. The scene on the beach that follows doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house. The acting, the editing, and most of all, the cinematography are breathtaking.
This movie shows us that life goes on. We get over loss. We heal. We live again and participate in life in a more mature, perhaps measured way. We can watch this movie for its entertainment value, or we can join the director’s deep dive into the symbolism he offers. A repeating motif is water. Water in all forms is part of many scenes. We learn that water cleans. It gives life, and it can take life. It is universal and is always present in our lives and the lives of the characters of Roma.
The other lesson is a glimpse into Mexico’s class system. Cleo was a domestic from a rural region of Mexico. With dignified clarity, the movie shows us what is it like to be a domestic and a member of the middle class in Mexico. The differences are visible and at times, painful.
This movie will not appeal to everyone. It might be considered too slow, and it has no technological gimmicks. The movie will appeal to those who love good storytelling, like foreign films (it is subtitled), are interested in history and appreciate masterful cinematography. This might be considered more of an art film than mainstream film. An MPAA rating of R signals this is an adult movie with adult content.
Does the movie work? The answer is yes, it works, and it illuminates in the process. I recommend this trip down memory lane. It may just trigger some of your trips down your memory lanes! I give “Roma” 5 film reels out of 5. See you at the movies!
Cast: Marina de Tavira, Yalitza Aparicio, Fernando Grediago, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Marco Pepe, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuaron
Producers: Alfonso Cuaron, Gabriela Rodriguez, Nicolas Celis
Released by: Netflix
Gail Pischak is a second-semester film student at COD and a wanna-be short documentary filmmaker. Her primary hobby is movies, movies and movies!