CLEO’S SONG OF THE SOUL : ON ROMA(2018) .

The heart is a restless vessel, unable to remember or retain every detail. But some linger and get lodged in the most intimate iota of the mind. Those little moments are more than precious and when they emerge from the nostalgic purview of childhood, where the whole world is an oyster, no matter what, the translation is more panoramic, bittersweet and synchronous in terms of memories.

Director Alfonso Cuaron finds his one true vessel of memories prevailing over a lifetime of further memories and beyond in ROMA, the year’s definitive masterpiece that I have been lucky to watch recently. Thank you Netflix for allowing cinephiles around India to be struck by the abiding fidelity to cinematic recreation of true events and inspiration on the part of Cuaron. The streaming service is officially now a harbinger of universal emotions, setting a precedent unlike any other ever in history in which our global similitudes become prominent by the day. Stories need to be told and when they are kissed by the moist imprints of real life influences as in ROMA they transcend boundaries in a profound sense. Don’t think the favourite listings and critical word of mouth are just faint praise : there is genuine poetry in the film at every turn and mind you, it’s the same kind that we encounter everyday when we pause to take a breath, count our blessings and profess love for kindred who go beyond blood bonds. Imagery of life itself is a gift unto itself.

The above written first lines express the same sentiments I share about the lingering images of realism and remembrance that I have been unable to drain off my mind after watching it. They have been all created so mellifluously; just thinking about how beautifully a personal vision can be adapted is in itself an exciting idea. Here, it becomes an honorable, extended series of montage that transforms the real to reel- actually the most potent, genuine recording instrument to boot, in my opinion.

The image of soap suds and water over the floortiles is one such image that I have retained ever since I saw the teaser. That prevalent image of domesticity opens the film and maintains the continuum of the everyday chore for close to three minutes . This seemingly static action is much more than what meets the eye. To me, it signifies a lot of things. Of memories being washed away, created anew from the vantage point and intimacy of innocent childhood and further adult resources as in the instance of Cuaron who addresses the centrality of one woman who, in hindsight, was the glue holding a family threatened by disintegrating forces within and to an extent outside. The closing credits acknowledge her with a pithy ‘To Libo’. The tale here honors her resilience and those of countless other individuals in an unforgettable stream of montages . To me, they are silent warriors of fate navigating the said and the unsaid and everything in between. That woman is Yalitza Apiricio vis a vis her by now classic turn as homekeeper and nanny CLEO, the facsimile of the mother figure who practically raised Cuaron and his siblings in 1970s Mexico City.

In another, the washing of the tiles by none other than Cleo can point to the nonchalance of manual labour and the thanklessness of societies able to afford domestic services. We don’t know where real life ends and inspiration begins in the iteration in ROMA but suffice to say, it’s stirring in multiple ways.
*****

ROMA is named after the tony neighborhood of Cuaron’s life, one of the most posh localities still of Mexico city. Its pivot is Cleo, the eyes and ears who unobtrusively seeps through this upper middle class household like water, stagnant in her dictums and routine yet free flowing in her progression through the everyday. Hence Roma subsumes the emotionally emaciated spaces of CLEO. That extends to her child like stature( as in her small build) and the larger one within the ethos of the household and society. Of The Native voice that has slipped down the rabbit hole of history and memory and has been relegated to the shadow . CLEO, however, becomes the focal point and refuses to occupy marginal back benches of the family’s personal history. Her own is one dotted with a predisposition towards challenges. Yet she marches on and prevails in her own way. For all of the concerns of racial cultural appropriation about the lesser status of Mexican Native populace, it’s a glaring truth that modern society too has given them the short shrift. As is the case with Native Americans in USA, Maoris in New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia and countless tribes in India et al. Limited chances. But individual self hood goes above and beyond narrow limits. Cleo is one such individual.
*****

ROMA has CLEO take the reins of the plot as the actual soul of a home bursting with the energy of four children and two tensed parents, encounter the sudden pain of an unwanted pregnancy as her boyfriend deserts her and the social ramifications of the Mexican revolution in a scene that paves the passage for the stark sense of alienation and tragedy endemic to those not well off or equipped enough to defeat coming blows of life. But then it is a tale about everyone of us, applicable to all as the circumstances of the world are corollaries of our own. We make the world and its composite whole.

Towards the second half, there is a naturally attuned sense of the division within our society and of that portrayed in the film, of celebrations within the friend’s estate where the family goes to ring in Christmas. The traditional underground party which Cleo attends is an effective demonstration of the upper/ lower binary and it sounds contrived but is handled with grace and great care, organic to the milieu and is more universal than we would like to accept it as.

Three sequences make Cleo’s reckoning as a domestic help painfully clear- one where she is made to make a beverage just when she has finished most of the work and settles to watch a comic show on television, another when the lady of the house( an excellent Marina de Tavira) , chased by ghosts of her crumbling marriage, reprimands her, venting her anger on her and the most poignant is when she visits her boyfriend to inform him of her pregnancy. “fucking servant”, these stinging words, coupled with his misogynistic threats of violence to her and the unborn baby, are enough to shake her (and us) to the core.

My cherished moment is one where she pretends to play dead with the youngest child of the home, who dotes on her and is clearly her favorite, on the balcony, under drying line of clothes. This is symbolic of the wretchedness of her routine, the exhaustion that she may want to escape, a simple child’s prank underlining a quiet moment alive with so many contexts and sensations.
Nature coexists with the human emotions in a synthesis of great power. I reckon the child is none other than Cuaron himself from his childhood days, a child given to make believe and a heightened imagination that he disseminates to CLEO.

I will write another post on ROMA. For now, the images and Cleo’s omnipresence have captured my heart. It’s reminiscent of the cinema of auteurs like Satyajit Ray who found the beautiful in common crannies of existence and Alfonso, who I have admired owing to his brilliant work on HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and GRAVITY, finds a pedestal of the diurnal to give CLEO / LIBO a worthy spotlight.

** This post simultaneously also has been posted on my collection A LETTERED SOUL on Wattpad.

*****

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