Thursday, December 27, 2018

Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)

Domesticated helper

Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is yes one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year.

Based on the director's memories of Mexico in the '70s and of his own nanny Liboria Rodriguez, the film tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in her big screen debut), a domestic helper living with an upper-middle class family in the relatively affluent district of Colonia Roma, in Mexico City. The opening image reflects this: a lingering gaze on floor tiles as soapy water washes across the gleaming surface, and a plane slides across the reflected sky. Those tiles and the (despite all the soap and water) proliferating little piles of dogshit will come to represent the increasingly Sisyphean task facing Cleo, one of only two housemaids in a large domicile, the family pet with nothing to do. 

The plane? Beats me. An escape Cleo never takes or even thinks to take? A larger world of which she will catch brief glimpses? A friendly sky she will never be able to fly?

Cuaron leisurely establishes mood and character, using no audible soundtrack beyond what is on radio or TV or--on occasion--movie screen; the relative silence, scored to the clatter of plates the hiss of scrub brushes the light cacophony of adult and children's voices vying for attention, emphasizes the serenity of the neighborhood compared to the rest of the city.

There are tensions familial societal political. At one point Cleo's employer Sofia (Marina De Tavira) reprimands her for failing to clean the family carport (the long tiled turd-infested hallway); at another Sofia sharply addresses Cleo who stands gaping "Don't you have anything to do?" Sofia has just been on the phone, in tears: apparently her husband Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) left her for another woman.

Cleo has her own problems: she's seeing young Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and has missed her period; she tells him during a movie date and he quietly ditches her before the end credits roll. Cleo tracks Fermin down to a training camp where he practices kendo, dozens of young men swinging bamboo poles. "Is it for the Olympics?" she asks. "Something like that," Fermin vaguely answers; he runs to board one out of several trucks and buses driving the youths away to some secret other location. 

The film's themes gradually reveal themselves: the resiliency of women, the fickleness of men, the way class boundaries are permeable and impervious--impervious in that Cleo is bound by her lack of education and economic options, permeable in that she is able to win the affections of the children she serves. In the background we see and hear student activism simmering unhappily under President Luis Echeverria's regime--Cuaron keeps the politics at arm's length but can we realistically expect more from a story told through a domestic's eyes? Cleo is open but not particularly curious; she has no particular interest in the affairs of the larger world. It's the immediate world that captures her attention--how the sky looks while lying on a rooftop with one of her young charges; how pulque tastes when sneaking a glass behind her employer's back.

Turns out Cleo never gets to sip that pulque; she's jostled and her glass shatters. Turns out politics will intrude, spectacularly--when shopping for a cradle with Sofia's mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia), Cleo is caught in the middle of a student riot turned bloody, the Corpus Christi Massacre. The outside world invades Cleo's closed-in world and she can only respond according to her limited means and knowledge, mostly flinching at the more terrible sights.  

Cuaron hasn't yoked the narrative onto a neat structure: life meanders along till a crisis happens--Dr. Antonio's departure, a forest fire, an earthquake, a riot--and Cleo's wide eyes take it all in. Cuaron digitally assembles different shots to create a seamless space (a 380 degree pan inside the house for example took 45 camera positions digitally combined) where his story takes place--if the film looks stunning, that's partly because Cuaron has taken his raw material and fussed over every aspect till he got exactly what he wanted, a kind of artful shapelessness. 

Cuaron's achievement shows what's possible using CGI in a realistic (as opposed to fantasy or science fiction) setting, the same time it's a tribute to past cinematographers who couldn't use CGI; they often had to create their effects on-camera, in real time. 

If the story is a magpie collection of memories and the visual style a magpie collection of footage, so are the references (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the picture!)--the name Cleo is presumably a nod to Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cuaron also takes a page from Varda's use of location, nonprofessional actors, realism). The Ford Galaxie Dr. Antonio drives is likely an allusion to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, where the vehicle (actually a Mustang but Godard insisted on calling it a Galaxie) was Lemmy Caution's spacecraft of choice and the basis of one of this film's funnier running gags: when we first see the doctor he's painstakingly lining up the car to enter the carport (Wide phallic symbol entering tight opening--nudge nudge wink wink say no more say no more); later a drunk Sofia takes the Galaxie's wheel and heedlessly rams it home (Anal vengeance?); much later she shows up at garage door with a compact, a far more sensible car for the narrow space. When Cleo gives birth Cuaron basically takes the same shot Dreyer used in Ordet--Cleo seen from the side, writhing in pain--adopts a different approach: where Dreyer keeps the woman's nether regions out of sight and only gives us the horrific sound of shears snipping the baby apart, Cuaron gives us the dead child's corpse, cradled in one hand like a limp mannequin. Can't help preferring Dreyer's version (the sound of those shears linger in memory) but there's a quiet poignancy to Cuaron's version, with Aparicio's artless despair going a long way to selling that scene. 

Many of the film's more quotidian sequences--Cleo on the rooftop, hanging laundry; Cleo in the living room turning out lights; Cleo stepping down from bus to muddy plaza in a miserable provincial town--the way Cuaron lingers and marinates his audience in the sounds and imagery you can't help but wonder if maybe Cuaron has seen one or two of Lav Diaz's films. Difference being Diaz in Season of the Devil works on a fraction of Cuaron's budget (some $150,000 to Cuaron's $15 million) while locking down his camera for a more unconscionable period--as if trying to grind the image into the earth, insisting on its gravity, its perhaps nonexistent profundity. Diaz's images are also cruder, considerably uglier--but then he's often in an ugly mood nowadays. Cuaron's is a memory play, slightly silvered with nostalgia; Diaz's has the trauma-inducing force of a blunt instrument.

Does the film work? Is giving us a panorama of '70s Mexico glimpsed indirectly through the eyes of a largely passive witness an artistically valid approach? I think Bertolucci succeeded in The Last Emperor, where the sight of Pu Yi buffeted by the forces of history had its special pathos. Bertolucci benefited greatly from Vittorio Storaro's gorgeous colors; Cuaron's black-and-white digital photography (he shot his own film) serves a similar function, presenting a personal story set against an epic background with beautifully understated style. 

Nothing shows Cleo's passivity better than the beach scene (again, skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!)--she's been assigned to watch the kids (even if she can't swim) who have been warned not to swim too far out (Could see this coming a mile off, which makes one wonder: what was Sofia thinking?). "Cleo saved us!" one kid exclaims when we saw was further from the truth: she stood waist-high in the waves, calling to the children, unable to do anything more. One might argue Cuaron was suggesting a bit of magic realism--the kids pop up out of the waves as if magically compelled by her desperate cries--but basically the woman plays hapless sentinel, and if things had turned out for the worse would have been witness to a case of criminal negligence. Hugo Haniway in Diaz's film is just as passive just as helpless but Diaz gradually unveils his disgust with the character incarnated by the film's brutal Teniente, who prods Hugo again and again and again till he's pushed to the film's narrative dramatic emotional brink. Diaz sees the passivity and takes aim, gearing his unwieldy four-hour black-and-white film forward in a collision course. Cuaron? Coyly tucks his agenda beneath all the admittedly gorgeous visual textures. 

Is an aesthetically distancing film what we need in these times? I don't know; lots of folks think so or after Spike Lee's and Boots Riley's films may feel the need for respite from in-your-face filmmaking but I don't personally know. I guess under these circumstances and at this moment in time I feel I need a little more anger in my life.

First published in Businessworld 12.21.18

2 comments:

Roqui Roco Raca said...

For a mexican audience it has been a divided view (as divided is the politics right now), some arguing it is too burgoise, some just not arguing and letting themselves sink in the beauty of images. Personaly it made me think of something such as an "organic cinema" that I eat in a Lav Diaz project but not here since a lot, a lot of money was invested in an illustration of poverty, injustice and inequality. I saw a reduction of what Lav Diaz refers as spirit into a mere product of cinematic values. What would have happened if Roma dared to last 200 min? Anyways, I was very interested in your point of view because of your previous approach to Lav Diaz´s cinema. Everardo Felipe

Noel Vera said...

Glad to see you had a similar insight.