Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is both his most ambitious and his most personal film to date – a vision of growing up in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970s. While it’s based on his own life as a child, this isn’t strictly a coming-of-age story, nor is it autobiographical in a conventional sense, since the focus of the film is displaced from Cuarón’s own experiences to those of his family’s maid Libo, here renamed Cleo, to whom Roma is dedicated. Much of the film revolves around Cleo’s (Yalitz Aparicio) daily routines, and her interactions both with her working-class community and the family she works for, which comprises couple Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediga) and their three children. All of that plays out against a backdrop of growing political unrest, culminating with the Corpus Christi massacre, but the film defies any easy distinctions between the personal and the political, just as it defies any neat distinction between class relations and other kinds of relationship. Among other things, that means that Roma never traverses the distinction between political and personal life, or between class barriers, in any decisive way either, instead suspending the audience between a series of different experiences to evoke the era in its totality, replete with all the inconsistencies and incompletions that takes place in the midst of real time political change, all of which resist the idea that political change can be reduced to one privileged experience, one exemplary mise-en-scene, or one overarching directorial vision.
In order to capture that complexity, Cuarón adopts a hypnotic physicality and meticulous materiality that often recalls classical neorealism – especially the neorealist awareness that depictions of routine are the best way to ground cinema in the working-class realities of any one moment or period. Much of the first hour of the film simply follows Cleo (who is named after the protagonist of Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7) as she goes through one routine after another, all of which are enhanced by Cuarón’s black and white cinematography. To some extent, the black and white palette plays as a period effect, a reminder that colour films were still not especially common in Mexico at this time, but for the most part it is used as a way of enhancing the material textures of the film, particularly the interfaces and thresholds between one textural surface and the next. In one of the most memorable sequences, Antonio arrives home from a medical conference and spends a good ten minutes trying to fit his car into the house’s narrow garage, leading to one shot after another in which the threshold between the pearly sides of the car and the stuccoed wall of the garage are brought into sharp and exquisite relief. In another scene, the excitement of a hailstorm is condensed to the odd junctures that hail forms with every object in the family’s courtyard, while in yet another scene – the opening scene – Cuarón trains his camera on the wash of soapy water as Cleo sweeps it out across the tiles of the family’s entrance corridor.
Watching all these scenes, I realized that memories, particularly memories of childhood, often take place in black and white, or at least emphasise textural detail in the same way as black and white footage, with the result that all of Cuarón’s scenes and objects exude a sense of being remembered, despite the fact that in many cases the memories of Cleo’s life don’t belong to him personally, a paradox that grows more significant as the film proceeds. Instead, Cleo is forced to take on the mnemonic burden of the family, not only in the pragmatic sense of remembering their routines, remembering where objects are placed, and remembering to remind them of their commitments, but in the more emotional sense of having to remind them of their unity as a family when Antonio abruptly leaves them and moves to Acapulco with another woman. Sometimes Cleo enjoins them to remember themselves as a family directly, but more often than not it is her sheer presence that allows Sofia and her children to remember and reconstitute themselves as a family – the awareness that they must still be a family if they have a maid as a witness to their cohesion.
Rather than involve Cuarón remembering his past, Roma is therefore a tribute to Cleo as the medium through which his capacity to remember his family as a family was effected in the first place, along with his effort to return the favour by remembering her with the same dignity and respect. Given that Cleo mediates the family’s memories of itself structurally – partly by virtue of her sheer presence, and the class relations of Mexico at this time – Cuarón strives to do the same, never claiming to remember or represent Cleo as an exhaustive subjectivity. While we do get many insights into Cleo’s character – insights that feel drawn partly from Cuarón’s own memories, and partly from what he heard from his family later – her subjectivity tends to be subsumed into a heightened awareness and a mediatory potential that doesn’t ever quite gel into a realistic character study per se. This heightened awareness is one of the first things people notice about her, especially her lover Fermin, who notes that her gaze gives him the same sense of focus that he acquires from martial arts. Not surprisingly, then, it is in and around Cleo’s body that the political events of the film tend to be mediated – she goes into labour at the height of the Corpus Christi massacre, at the very moment she sees Fermin transformed from lover into activist – but it never quite feels like she is being framed in a purely allegorical register either. Instead, and in a more pragmatic sense, it is as if Cuarón can only remember himself, and this period, in and through the comforting proximity of Cleo’s body, meaning that he can only represent himself, and the period, via the way it intersects and interacts with her own awareness of it.
At a more immediate level, that also means that Cleo is never – and can never – be fully integrated into the family unit, no matter how crucial she might become to them when both she and Sofia are forced to face the prospect of raising their children alone. After Sofia is left by her husband, and Fermin refuses to recognise Cleo’s unborn child, a great deal of sympathy and solidarity arises between the two women, while Cleo understandably becomes more invaluable to Sofia and the family than ever. Yet this never results in Cleo traversing the class barrier, since it is her class status as a maid that is the most important witness to the family’s cohesion – they might be a broken family, but they are still a family with a maid – with only the youngest child, the one most associated with Cuarón, able to glimpse an equality with Cleo that precedes the socialization of the remainder of the family. Similarly, while it is only after seeing her own experience reflected in Cleo that Sofia can make her first gesture of defiance against her husband, and assert her equality with her husband, this doesn’t lead to a sustained sense of equality with Cleo, even or especially as it makes Sofia ever more sympathetic to Cleo in the particular class role that Cleo occupies.
In short, then, Roma is faced with a paradox – how to remember and respect someone as an individual whose role as a mediator of memory partly depended on their individuality being subsumed into their class status? To a certain extent, Cuarón addresses that question by acknowledging his limitations to fully understand or subjectify Cleo, insulating her from the film as a whole even as she is the main focus of the film, in large part by suffusing even the most vivid parts of her life – nudity, sexuality, trauma – with the same sense of being sequestered by a routine that places them beyond the purview of the family and audience. While much of the film might exude the specificity of lived memories, and evoke Cuarón’s pleasure in recalling and immersing himself in the objects of his childhood, this never quite feels like his story, but never quite feels like Cleo’s story either. Offering the heightened sensuality of childhood perceptions, but not quite identifying itself with a childhood perspective, Roma suspends the audience in precisely the bind that faces Cuarón – that of remembering a childhood by way of a mediator whose memories are not his, and whose memories could never be his, as much as they might be the only way to testify to his memories as well. The more the film intensifies its immersive pastness, the more it offsets any accompanying nostalgia, situating itself in a distended zone between pastness and personal experience, and between the personal and the political, that gives the escalating political backdrop an incredibly visceral valency when it does burst into Cuarón’s mise-en-scenes, but folds it back into the fabric of everyday life just as quickly, as soon as it recedes.
In order to capture that suspended subjectivity and distended agency, Cuarón often adopts strategies typical of 70s arthouse cinema, as if trying to envisage the kind of auteurist extravaganza that might have been released in Mexico City at the time he is describing if the local film industry and critical community had had the infrastructure to support it. Every moment is so perfectly orchestrated that it seems as if Cuarón is trying to take the shot to its very limits in terms of how much it can contain, and how far it can proceed, with several key sequences appearing to light upon Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba, and its depiction of political revolution, as the benchmark to be exceeded. Yet the effect isn’t exactly one of remodernism, or of a return to the high auteurist ambitions, so much as an acknowledgment that those very auteurist ambitions are now a period effect, and so inherently limited in terms of the insights they can gain into the class system that the film articulates. Rather than resolving the class divide of the film, or intensifying and encapsulating it as a dialectical proposition, Cuarón’s arthouse touches evoke a panoramic totality and a visionary dexterity unavailable to those living through the events he described, especially himself. For every sequence shot that seems on the verge of resolving into a visual encapsulation of class relations, then, Cuarón finds himself devolving back into a more unruly aesthetic, just as every tableau that seems on the verge of acting as a microcosm for the film and its concerns is quickly subsumed into another standalone scene.
In other words, Cuarón’s efforts to remember class relations as an auteurist gesture is performatively offset by the fact that he can only remember class relations through class relations, just as he can only remember himself, his family, and Cleo, through Cleo herself. Nowhere is that paradox clearer than in Roma’s dual existence as both a large screen and Netflix experience. I saw it on the big screen, which worked brilliantly to bring out the stylised pacing and the immaculate detail of Cuarón’s mise-en-scenes, many of which must have taken days, if not weeks, to time and execute. Yet the film also exudes a modesty about its auteurist ambitions, and a piecemeal quality, that might work even better on the small screen, and even as a small-screen experience punctuated and qualified by other interruptions. After all, the way that Roma presents cinema is quite akin to the way that Netflix is experienced now – as a demotic medium that is always semi-present somewhere in the background – while the experience of Netflix in the contemporary world also feels truer to Cleo’s experience than the stately and selective theatres where the brief big-screen run of the film has taken place, generally to a more baroque form of arthouse acclaim than is typically accorded for Netflix releases, especially for Netflix original cinematic content.
While Roma may be totally different to Gravity, then, it is perhaps a film that Cuarón could only have made after Gravity, since it exudes the same dreamy, free-floating, disorienting refusal to ground its world in any stabilizing referent or orienting horizon, instead launching the viewer into a spectatorial freefall in which their reception of the film is as much a part of its content as the story that it tells. Indeed, at one point, Cuarón cuts abruptly from a streetscape to footage of an astronaut spinning through space – an astronaut who looks suspiciously like George Clooney – and yet the two feel totally continuous, part of the same universe. Rather than outline space, his endless tracking-shots and 360-degree pans evoke a space that can’t be exclusively or definitively remembered by the film, but which instead forms a broader mnemonic zone within which the film participates. Subsuming the film into a remembering that is always contoured by class, rather than remembering class per se, Cuarón therefore ends where he begins, with the image of water lapping across a surface, although this time it is the waves crashing on the beach, rather than soapy water moving across the tiles, in a closing scene that recalls Sandra Bullock’s return to Earth at the end of Gravity, and her strange realisation that our planet now feels even more devoid of spatial stability than the freefall she has just traversed. In Roma, that freefall is the effort to negotiate the continuous and necessary oscillation between speaking through class and speaking about class, and it is only by performatively inhabiting and intensifying that oscillation, Cuarón seems to realise, that he can properly pay homage to Cleo, and to Libo.