Three days ago, I had written a post on this acclaimed Mexican cinematic gem that gives credence to the idea of universality as much more than a global construct. The dramatic presentation of a woman’s personal journey, the family she serves for and the state of societal churning in the country around early 70s Mexico embraces nostalgia and the art of remembrance like no other. It goes without saying that it was not enough to write a single post as I wanted to share few other salient features that captured my attention vis a vis its unflinching realism and diurnal poetry.
Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA is now a globally recognized masterpiece that revels in its intensity, warmth, love for the nurturing roles of mothers and surrogate mother figures indispensable to middle / upper middle class structure and the silence of its emotionally animated frames. Yalitza Aparicio’s turn as Cleo, the facsimile of the nanny who practically raised Alfonso and his siblings, is one for the ages and a definitive artistic benchmark that comes once in a lifetime. For all true blue worldwide cinephiles, it’s a blessing that Roma’s universal nature has broken through the clutter of arthouse boxes a sensitive and humanistic work as this usually espouses, something which in a commerce driven epoch would have underestimated its beauty of purpose. Roma has overturned the odds to examine class, gender, society and represent cinema at its purest, a microcosm of realistic values. As my title says it all, Cleo’s heartbeats echo throughout the world. Cuaron and Yalitza’s collective Midas touch goes beyond the immediate era of setting to shed light on the textures that make life worthwhile even amid a million heartbreaks. The fabric of humanity is enough to sustain us.
In the absence of a background score and the emphasis on naturalistic images, long takes and sound, Cuaron finds the natural sustenance for his vision in the silences laden with meanings and a life force that is definitive for him and us. I personally feel by employing a black and white palette, he taps into the very personal pulse of our memories. Come to think of it, whenever we think of the past, a random moment in time, a monochromatic image leaps out of our mind’s multiple crannies. The faces, places all come without a colour scheme to the mind’s eye and a sepia toned singularity pervades. I feel that way as I’m sure many others do. The memory is stronger and those who populate it hold centrestage. In ROMA, cinematic realism is paramount.
The extended opening sequence with water on the tiles and the eventual reflection of the window and a passing aeroplane in the puddle is carefully captured, suggesting a passage of time for the working class exemplified in CLEO and the day to day basis for continuity for them. A cycle of ubiquitous labour is affixed with the fact that in a stratified class establishment, the lives of domestic helps and their contributions is a crucial part of my nation too, so in your face it’s impossible to imagine a world without them.
To the observant eye, CLEO is a picture of humility but then does she have any other option besides passive resignation? Selective erasure of those not born into privilege is upended by bringing CLEO to an omnipotent circle of the screenplay, as it was for Cuaron and his family and it is offset by the love and trust that is mutually mined as part of this extended unit where her employers are empathetic individuals who stand by her as she does. Empathy is a running stream here, divested as it is of grand illusions.
Looking at Cleo’s unraveling in ROMA, I hark back to a stirring special feature in a recent edition of READER’S DIGEST titled MY FAMILY’S SLAVE, about the generational role of domesticity thrust on one woman who served the author’s family for decades, from Phillipines to USA and the tragedy of her own sterile personal life where only in her old age she is able to go back to claim her roots in the country of her birth. A complex thread binds these two for me and accentuates the realism of the cinematic word.
Some crucial salient features from ROMA:
** CLEO is a short statured, bird like woman and one gets the impression that she is middle aged. But in the moment where she is in the room with her beau Fermin, youth glows with iridescent innocence on her face(Yalitza is around 26-27 in real life) and for the first time we realize she has a life of her own.
** when the family gathers at its wealthy friends’ estate in the countryside for Christmas , the atmosphere is one of great camaraderie, indicative of the communal marshaling of yesteryears. I can’t help noticing that today, kids, in contrast, will be seen hanging their heads over touchscreens.
Since Mexico experiences an annual summer, with not a trace of snow, the provenance emerges as the hottest during Noel, enough to make way for a forest fire, one of the pivotal sequences in the film.
** Birth and death echo throughout as in the family’s rebirth after Sofia ( Marina de Tavira) takes charge of the household. This is after her professionally successful husband Antonio deserts her for a younger woman, leaving her with the responsibility of four young children. The family resurrects itself as the mother infuses new lease of life into it without thumping tables and melodramatic concessions while CLEO becomes the light guiding them after her own failed pregnancy.
CLEO too faces abject abandonment by her boyfriend Fermin and a scene with the backdrop of riots following the Mexican Revolution is designed around the twin aspects of death ( as gunmen sorround the area) and life ( her water breaks and she is rushed to the hospital)
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in modern cinema comes here as she delivers a stillborn baby and holds her for the last time, a progression charting the doomed fate of her love life and motherhood. This scene comes with no observational swell. The ebbs and lows of these lives are rooted in pin drop silences exhibiting introspection and the power of suggestion. In one single take, her fate is sealed. I still remember the sensation of absolute numbness I experienced, watching this scene and the horrifying intimacy of the encounter on the woman.
The scene at the beach where she rescues the younger children from a high tide is both a Lazarus image ( my term for instances of life threatening events getting overturned by a person’s intervention) and an arc for CLEO to echo her own role as a mother figure to them, days after she loses her own. You have to watch the film to know how effective the parallels and simultaneous currents are. When she tearfully declares to Sofia that she secretly wished her baby never came to be born, her pain and struggles are internalized in her overwhelmed state after emerging from water. The sound effects capture the liberating and suffocating force of the sea waves. A continuum of suffering was what she may have never wanted for her child, especially a girl.
** Finally, the elements occupy an important space in some of the best montages, in a film where every image has been imprinted in my mind and soul.
WIND and FIRE – as in the scene in the forest around the countryside estate where they go for Christmas is alighted by a fire.
EARTH – when CLEO stands at a panoramic vantage point around the same estate, overlooking a vast acre of farm land and reminisces about the smell and sights as an extension of her own village. Also the underdeveloped mud soaked path of Fermin’s village and the open expanse of the ground where he receives his training.
WATER – as in the beach, one of the most beautifully shot extended sequences carrying the wealth of meanings and the permanence of life.
In ROMA, each part is given enough time to be embedded in our consciousness and it never lingers beyond a point. Hence the power of the images. In my opinion, only ASHA JAOER MAJHE( LABOUR OF LOVE) , an Indian Bengali film of profundity with no dialogues or background score, embraced the micro within the universal with such poetic fluidity in recent times. Such was its magical aura in which single, stationary takes like that of the sunset portrayed an extraordinarily intimate perspective from the filmmaker’s lens. A looking out and internalized center coexisted in the narrative, a facsimile of its extremely realistic retelling.
ROMA ends with the Indian words ‘Shantih, Shantih, Shantih’. Its quiet but propulsive, internalized storytelling finds a perfect denouement. It maintains continuity with the final shot of an overhead aeroplane as in the beginning. Life, actually, comes full circle in ROMA both from the prism of memory and recollection as a form of therapeutic, cathartic structure.
#this essay also simultaneously appears on my essay collection A LETTERED SOUL on WATTPAD.