Who dictates what films should be about?
What kind of life do people want to see played out on an eighty foot expanse of heavy white reflective vinyl?
Is audience demand always the most important factor? Is it all superheroes, action heroes, historical figures, monster fighters, those who really love and those who really live?
Why can’t someone just make a movie about the normal person in their life that passed unnoticed but made all the difference to them?
These are the types of questions that director Alfonso Cuarón must have asked himself when thinking about the idea for this film, or at the very least they would have been questions asked of him by his financiers.
Maybe not though because this is a Netflix movie and by all accounts they give almost unparalleled autonomy to the film makers they work with. Adam Wingard, Paul Greengrass and the Coens have all talked about how the company gives its collaborators total creative freedom. Also, let’s be honest; Netflix get a huge amount of kudos for getting the Oscar winning director of Gravity on the payroll no matter what he does. Everybody wins; they win, he wins and we win too because Roma is a wonderful film. The result of Cuarón or the execs or whoever having bold answers to all of those questions is this gentle but brilliant movie about a regular woman; unassuming but remarkable and heroic in her own way.
Alfonso Cuarón has drawn heavily on his own history to tell this story. The film centres on Cleo, the maid in a middle class Mexican family very much like Cuarón’s own in the early 70s. Events in the narrative reflect those that he lived through and scenes are shot on the very streets he grew up in. Across one year we see Cleo going about her work, looking after the house and the children, one of whom is to all intents and purposes a young Cuarón, and supporting them through various domestic crisis. All the while Cleo has her own issues to deal with though and the way she supports her employers as they support her, all the while walking the line of social boundaries, is captivating, endearing and often moving.
At its heart Roma is a celebration of a regular life but in being so it also examines humanity in a broad and universal way. It is specific to a time and place but says more about the life lived by those of us that will be watching it than any spy, spook or spandex movie. As an audience we do get to escape into someone else’s story but in this context we are only getting away from things as much you would by watching things from the other side of a screen door, rather than by disappearing off into a world of witchcraft and wizardry by or heading out into space.
While he is sharing the details of one woman’s life though, Cuarón isn’t just working as a documentarian here. Roma is the work of a real cinematic artist. The framing and shot composition is beautiful and with relatively few cuts logistically brilliant. Like Pawel Pawlikowski before him Cuarón has used monochrome to make every frame worthy of hanging on a photography exhibition wall. He has done his own cinematography here, by necessity rather than design, and is demonstrating new skills as a film maker beyond his already impressive body of work. This is a new and different Cuarón and this is tantalising for the future.
The Ripley Factor:
Rarely for a film directed by a man this feels like an authentic woman’s story, no doubt because Alfonso Cuarón was so close to and so revered the woman who inspired it. While portions of the movie show Cleo performing mundane tasks with dignity she also faces extreme situations and it is here that the leading lady really shines. Yalitza Aparicio, a twenty four year old primary school teacher, is superb in her first role and is sure to get an Oscar nomination. (Olivia Colman will win.) Like the film she is in, Aparicio is understated but magnificent, responding well to Cuarón’s largely improvised scene set ups. Apparently the director gave his cast the overview of each chapter and a few outcomes but no script and Aparicio’s lack of experience may have helped with this. In fact Marina de Tavira, as the mother in the family, is the only professional actor in the whole thing. The rest of the cast are not so much acting as playing through each scenario as any person would and this only contributes to the naturalism. This approach has brought wonderful performances from the children too.
Roma is unlike most other films then. By questioning where the medium can go Alfonso Cuarón has taken it to a fascinating new place and I loved it. See Roma to reward him for this and I promise you will be rewarded in return.
Roma is in select cinemas this week and is on Netflix from 14th December.