On the surface, Roma is a harmonious masterpiece and soaring cine-sonnet to Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s home and childhood. However, beneath its salient black and white facade, it operates using complex mechanisms, making Roma more profound and thought provoking than is evident when first watching. Set during one year (1971) in Roma (a local Mexican community), Cuarón’s film feels more like a lucid dream/ fluid recollection, than firsthand account of family life, or linear scenes from a stream of consciousness that sashay and deviate, but never simply tell.
Soapy water floods black and white tiles under the opening credits before low-gliding through the home of a local family. There we meet Antonio (Fernando Grediaga): a doctor/dad frequently away on business trips, leaving wife/ mother Sofia (Marina De Tavira) to raise their children with house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who gradually becomes Roma’s protagonist. Cuarón explores Cleo, the family and Roma: which thrives with wonder and other lives, using an array of devices to make it resound as a breathtaking work of art.
Urban sounds amass from low-hum to an eclectic bustle, supplementing redolent vision of streets, slums and landscapes while detonating joie de vivre. Roma (the film and place) pulsates like a ghost’s last look at life before parting ways with humanity. Cuarón (who is also writer and cinematographer) melds corporeal detail with light (shafts, shimmers and flares), making genius mise en scené as Roma roves like a paranormal rollercoaster. Every shot is augmented with pin sharp precision that’s hard enough to master within a single, still image, let alone a moving one.
These complex compositions are memorably evident in wide exteriors, but also make simple interior scenes like dinner parties blast with the same sonata power as Gravity’s space explosion. The camera circling Cleo as she turns lights off around the apartment is quietly captivating, along with a scene featuring a car being parked, caught like a Film Noir murder; complete with growling engine and cigarette smoke coiling from darkness into light. Cuarón quietly addresses our fascination with fantasy and tendency to be distracted by personal paranoia/ technology.
A man in a bear costume, minus the mask, sings solemnly in the forest, locked in deep thought, as a fire rages behind him. A sombre family ponder loss while a joyful wedding fills the backdrop and a riot erupts outside a store window while customers shop inside. On two occasions, the young son casually recounts memories of being a pilot in a past life with enough detail to make it tangible, but Cleo is too preoccupied with her chores to pay attention. Another scene featuring Cleo and her boyfriend in the back row of a cinema, discussing life-changing events while a Terry-Thomas war film plays before them, is another fitting fantasy/reality composite.
Through being black and white Roma also constantly reminds us that what we are watching is false and that life is happening elsewhere. Pete Jackson’s latest, They Shall Not Grow Old, did the opposite by colourising WW1 footage to remind us that what we are watching didn’t just occur in a fictional black and white war film starring Terry-Thomas (how most of us connect with the world wars), but actually took place.
Roma is about diversion, perception and seizing life, but it is also, like us, distracted by TV/movies, occasionally lingering on screens for too long while its story/ drama happens elsewhere. At one point, without explanation, Cuarón breaks from Roma to show a full screen image of astronauts floating towards each other in space, mirroring a moment from Gravity as though made in the 1970s, before abruptly snapping back to film “reality” as though someone changed the channel.
Roma glides through the “life” time it constructs, highlighting the rich complexity/ importance of reality and the total absurdity of it all. This is inherent in scenes featuring a dog in a hail storm, cheesy naked martial artists and a wall of stuffed canine heads, while planes passing overhead reflected in puddles or seen in still scenes repeat themes of journey, adaptation and the nature/fear of change.
With this in mind, Roma could be considered anti-cinematic, contradicting itself considering how gorgeous it is and how easy it is to get lost in. Aside from the grand, expansive landscapes, sunlight shimmering off the ocean, thriving city streets and relatable dramas, through his distracted characters and devious devices, Cuarón wants us to consider what is important outside of it. Through Roma he entices and enthralls with great drama and visual splendour, but also quietly encourages us to look the other way.
The 62nd BFI London Film Festival runs from 10 – 21 October. Tickets available now from www.bfi.org.uk/lff