For her second film, Angela had a few different ideas before finally settling down on Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 released-by-Netflix masterpiece Roma.

When I was looking through Cuarón’s IMDB entry after Angela made her choice, I realized that he had directed one of the segments of Paris, Je T’aime, specifically the “Parc Monceau” segment, and so – yay! a short! – I showed it before the film.  Here it is, though I think the twist is none-too-clever.

 

Now, to the feature presentation.  I had seen Roma shortly after it was first released (in fact, it was one of the first films I ever watched on Netflix), so I knew what to expect.  What to expect?  A slow story, and some of the best black-and-white cinematography in the last few decades.

You dropped your…phony dog poo

In shooting this film, Cuarón showed himself to be a master of imagery.  The languid opening shot eventually reveals itself to be a bird’s eye view of a domestic servant mopping dog feces out of a driveway.  The reflection in the mopwater of an airplane cruising overhead starts the film out with one of the most arresting scenes of everyday life that I can remember.  And, while it seems nearly serendipitous, the appearance of airplanes over and over in the film, crossing through important shots, establishes them as an iconic, if enigmatic, theme of the film.

Painting professionally hung by Ted Kennedy

The domestic servant in question is Cleo, with Adela one of two live-in maids who work for a family (a family taken from Cuarón’s own memories of his childhood) in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970.  Incidentally, the title of the film, like much else, is never explained on screen.  Cuarón isn’t particularly interested in edifying the viewer in that way – he’s merely drawing a portrait of perhaps a year in the life, and your role is to be immersed in that, and not to get caught up in the rest.

Laundrybusting

Although there are moments, much of the film is taken up with day-to-day scenes that act to highlight how normal life is, how much of the day is taken up by the jejune, even when the events carrying on behind the scenes (at least behind the scenes for Cuarón and his siblings) are ones that will be looked back upon as momentous.

Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance

The story, such as it is, involves the parallel abandonments of the two main female leads, the mother Sofia by her physician husband, and Cleo by her boyfriend.  When their father leaves for a conference in Quebec, the children (and the viewer) think he’s only going to be gone for a few weeks, but in fact he’s leaving the family to take up with a mistress.  Sofia knows, but hides this from the family for months on end, telling the children simply that their father is too busy doing important work in Quebec to come home as long as she can pull it off.  There are a few close calls, and Cleo figures it out through encounters at the hospital, but the children (and, again to some extent the audience) remain in the dark for the majority of the film.

Ted Kennedy, lampshade leveler

At the same time, Cleo ends up getting pregnant by a young martial arts student who, when he finds out about her state (while in the cinema), excuses himself to go to the bathroom and bugs out.  Cleo announces her condition to Sofia expecting to be fired, but Sofia instead takes Cleo even further under her wing, taking charge of the medical expenses for the pregnancy.

You gotta ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?”  Well, do ya, tin can?

The family has a diversion for the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, going out to the country with a large troupe of acquaintances.

Du gamla, Du fria, Du fjällhöga nord

When the celebrational fireworks begin a forest fire at midnight on New Year’s, the sight of the revelers manning a bucket line while a drunken man in a bizarre costume recites poetry is straight out of a film Fellini never made.  It’s both incongruent and perfect.

Of course, in post we’re going to CGI them all in with battle droids, but we’ve got to have something for the actors to interact with

But life goes on, as it always does, and the fire is put out and everybody returns to city life.  Cleo, for her part, manages to track down her ex-boyfriend’s martial arts training facility, but when she finds him, he insists that he is not the father (he is) and makes it clear he will have nothing to do with it.

This is what you get when you feed a stranger scrambled eggs!

And so Cleo is forced to go it alone, with the help of the family, of course.  One day, when she and Sofia’s mother are out shopping for a crib, violence breaks out in the streets of Mexico City.  There are factions here, there are protestors, students may be involved, but who is angry about what with whom…well, that’s just not at all clear.  But to be fair, to Cleo, who doesn’t travel in whatever circles were fighting, the violence may be just as confusing as it is to the viewer who knows little about Mexico City in 1970 (raises hand).  The bottom line is that one faction chases an opponent into the furniture store Cleo is shopping in, and shoots him down in cold blood – and it turns out that one of the shooters is none other than Cleo’s ex-boyfriend.

The whole scene is extremely traumatic for Cleo, and she goes into early labor.  Her arrival at the hospital is delayed by the severe traffic jams that accompany the outbreak of street violence, and Cleo’s baby is stillborn.

He’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes

Shortly after Cleo’s tragedy (or at least partial tragedy, as she later tearfully admits she never wanted the child – though clearly she didn’t want it to die either) the family goes on vacation to the coast, with Cleo brought along.  While it remains hidden to the children, the true reason for the trip is to give Dad a weekend to clear his stuff out of the house, as it is now firmly decided that he’s not returning to the family.  Of course, on the trip, Sofia has no choice but to finally tell the children about their father leaving, as it will be relatively obvious once they get back.  While Sofia is tending to other things, Cleo, who cannot swim, risks her life to save two of the children who have been caught in the waves and are in danger of drowning.  Everybody ends up safe, and the family returns home.

Living under the flight path ain’t all bad – sometimes you get blue ice!

When they arrive, Sofia has the children all swap rooms, as perhaps an symbol of their new life without their father.  Cleo, for her part, returns to her work, taking the laundry up to the roof to dry, and as yet another (and another, and a third) plane passes by, the credits roll.

As I said, it’s a simple story, and there isn’t a plot as such.  The most striking thing – and frankly, the entire point of the film – is the relationship between Cleo and the family.  It’s very different than such relationships are usually portrayed.  Cleo is, for all purposes, an actual family member, and is treated as such.  Her bond with the children, and their bond with her, are rock solid.  So solid, in fact, that 48 years later Cuarón dedicated an entire film to portray this live-in domestic.  It’s terribly poignant, not in a way that makes you want to tear up, but in a way that makes you want to stare off into the distance, and hold your mouth and chin as you breathe slowly and take in a little slice of what is best in humanity.  It’s a film that is better the second time, because not only do you know what to expect, but you know what not to expect, and you can just let the whole thing wash over you.

Somehow, this film lost Best Picture to Green Book.  But when all is said and done in posterity, Roma will be recognized as  the real winner.