Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 10, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Roma (2018)

The debate continues to rage among serious film fans, and festival organizers especially, over whether or not Netflix and other streaming services count as “legitimate” formats of distribution for cinema. But here's the truth:  If “Roma” had been given a traditional release, very few people would have seen it. This is a low budget, foreign language film shot in black-and-white and without any known stars. Even with an established auteur like Alfonso Cuaron behind the camera, it probably would've played in select cities – New York and L.A., mostly – and that's it. Critics still would've loved it and the Academy probably still would've been receptive to it. Released on Netflix, “Roma” was doubtlessly seen by multitudes more people than would've seen it otherwise. I'd argue, without the wide release Netflix afforded it, “Roma” probably wouldn't be the Best Picture contender it currently is.

In 1970, a well-to-do middle-class family lives in the Colonia Roma area of Mexico City. The father, a doctor, is away from the house often, putting strain on his relationship with his wife. Their four children – three sons and a daughter – are usually looked after by a pair of housekeepers, Cleo and Adela. Mixtec speaking indigenous Mexicans, the two form close bonds with the children. They also have lives of their own. After Cleo becomes impregnated following her first attempt at casual sex, she feels increasingly uncertain about her lot in life and where things seem to be doing for her.

Alfonso Cuaron's previous film, “Gravity,” was characterized by an almost constant sense of motion. “Roma,” in contrast, is an incredibly still film. During many scenes, Cuaron's camera – the director was his own cinematographer here – pans slowly back and forth across the scenes. A sequence of a fire breaking out during a New Year's party reels back, looking at people tossing water on the blaze before eventually focusing on a man in a monster costume singing a coral. Sometimes, “Roma” is practically stationary, long shots focusing on Cleo's face in a hospital bed or the family crowding together on the beach. “Roma” is a movie that happens at the speed of life, watching its story as it progresses, sometimes in bolts but often in leisurely observances. Cuaron's patiently documents his world in this fashion, creating a living painting. The black-and-white photography somehow only makes things seem more grounded, more beautifully realistic.

“Roma” was clearly designed to capture what life was like in Colonia Roma circa 1970. Cuaron grew up around the same time and place. We see political fliers on the walls, colorful programs on the TVs, families flocking to movie theaters and stores, vendors plying their wares and kids playing in the street. Yet this rendition is focused on one woman's life. “Roma” looks at one year in Cleo's life. She quietly goes about her job, playing with the children in sweet and secret ways unnoticed by their parents. Cuaron does a lot just by placing Cleo in these wider scenes. We get a sense of her isolation, as a pregnant woman unsure of how she feels about the life growing inside her, as she walks through a crowded, nighttime street. Cuaron shows her and Adela exercising in the dark, showing the intimacy of their friendship. We feel Cleo's doubts and fears as her life changes, strictly by the way the character is visually presented.

“Roma” is, in its own quiet way, also a deeply political film. The political unrest Mexico experienced during this time boils under the surface throughout. Eventually, this explodes into violence, as the military and a paramilitary youth group come to blows. Cuaron keeps his intimate viewpoint even during this depiction of the Corpus Christi Massacre, showing only the glimpses Cleo gets of the violence. Yet most of the political subtext of “Roma” concerns class divides. Cleo and Aleda are indigenous Mexicans, in contrast with the lighter skinned and more affluent family they care for. While the family members focus on petty details, like the cars, the servants are the most cleaning up the dog shit and washing the floors. It's clear where the film's sympathies lie: With the often ignored and frequently put-upon working class, caught up in historical violence.

To bring this deeply personal story to life, Cuaron cast the film with largely unprofessional actors. Most of the film's cast is making their screen debuts here. Such as Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo. Aparicio says a lot with her body language, expressing so much with her slouched shoulders or with a small smirk. She strikes the viewer as a deeply vulnerable person who is determined to do her duties – taking care of her children – regardless of what else happens. Compare Aparicio's quiet resolution with Marian de Tavira, as a woman on teetering towards a mental breakdown. De Tavira accurately portrays a woman so wrapped up in her own melodrama, that she can barely see what her own kids get up to. She's very proud, striking one of her son when he listens in on a conversation she has. The two women show the very different ways people can respond to conflict.

“Roma's” stillness will not be for everyone. I imagine it will be declared boring or overrated by many soon enough, even more so if it does win Best Picture. Yet there's something quietly powerful about a film so determined to capture normal people's lives as they happen. Though some have called it Cuaron's masterpiece, its goals are much more modest than that. “Roma” is a gorgeous and deeply empathetic film, setting out to make us feel the heart and soul of its cast of characters. It totally succeeds, drawing us into a memory rich photograph of the recent past. [8/10]

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