As time moves forward we find ourselves attempting to recover its fragments. In the earliest youth time can lose its very meaning, but as the years accumulate we then look back, as if trying to find photographs in a vast galaxy of memories. Alfonso Cuaron wants to use the very essence of cinema to recover the past in Roma. His first feature film for Netflix is also one of the year’s best — a haunted, detailed, personal rendering of his memories growing up in 1970s Mexico. A serene rush of recollections, sights, sounds and sensations, it is a thriving example of the artist attempting ever so thoroughly to render for us what he experienced as a child. In its grander scope it is a tapestry of a society in a specific moment of time, at a more intimate level it conjures that sensation we feel when attempting to remember how the air smelled during a trip to the desert, how the night glowed when we were lost in the woods, or what her eyes looked like when you found her weeping on the balcony.
Roma is a work of cinema in the tradition of the Italian neo-realists in the way it abandons traditional plotting to chronicle life itself within the confines of a city, neighborhood or home. Cuaron has been building towards this moment his entire career, refining a technique honed in films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Gravity, all films with different themes but combining a dreamlike sense with stark realism. But there is a literary germ in Roma, a kinship with a tradition most readily associated with that French master of memory, Marcel Proust. When moving from Mexico to the United States, Cuaron himself first debuted in the English-language market with two literary adaptations, A Little Princess, based on a 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Great Expectations, a modern-day update of the Charles Dickens novel. There is already a somewhat Proustian spirit to the latter title, where Cuaron and his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, seem bent on capturing the very essence of what a kiss feels like, or the tension of making a heartfelt confession. But Roma is mining something much more personal and searing. Like Proust, we can imagine Cuaron lost in a haze of his mind’s memory palace, searching for moments the way one searches for books in a library.
We are taken into a middle class home in Mexico City. It is the 1970s during the administration of Luis Echeverria, one of the final strongmen of the infamous PRI party which ruled the country from the end of the Mexican Revolution until the year 2000. But the film’s gaze is from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the serene maid of home’s family. The de facto head of the house is Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who is raising a family of three rowdy boys and one girl. Her husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a doctor who drives home at night in a wide Ford Galaxy almost too big for the house’s garage. He also has a tendency of disappearing for days- to conferences Sofia insists to the kids. It is obvious the marriage is beginning to crack. As life attempts to carry on at a normal pace, Cleo is living her own dual existence. She hails from the poorer, indigenous sector of Mexican society, speaking in her indigenous language to Adela (Nancy García García), the other maid. But as Antonio is gone more and more, the world of this home will slowly begin to alter and painful truths will have to be shared. When Cleo meets a brash, young guy named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), she soon finds her own life irrevocably changed as well.
Every life is in itself a story. Marcel Proust, product of the French bourgeoisie society of the 19thcentury, was a keen observer of all- both the way his world operated and the way jealousy stings or unrequited love causes despair. His monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time, composed of seven volumes, is the defining literary work of memory itself. Proust had an uncanny ability of utilizing language to describe the sensuousness of remembrance, from the sound of a distant train, to the shadows cast by a light in his room as a child, to the memories the taste of a specific drink or meal may evoke. Jean Cocteau in an essay on Proust described the author as having “obeyed the laws of night and honey.” Walter Benjamin would write that, “from the honeycombs of memory he built a house for the swarm of his thoughts.” Simply open the first volume of Proust’s opus, Swann’s Way, and we are swept into a world of pure observation. The first chapter is a description of the narrator falling asleep, quite literally, and the very texture of the darkness around the bed. Later in the novel, this is how Proust describes the glance of a crush, “I can still see, above her silky, swelling mauve tie, the gentle surprise in her eyes…That smile fell on me, who had not taken my eyes off her. Recalling, then, the gaze she had rested on me during the Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad’s window.” Acts become patches of artwork, motions the equivalent of notes in a song. One section of the novel is famous for initiating a whole passage of memory simply from the taste of a madeleine. This is also how Cuaron has also envisioned Roma — following a Proustian road, one might say, into the corridors of his own lifetime. While not an aristocrat like Proust, Cuaron is himself a product of the Mexican middle class, having been raised in the comfortable sectors of Mexico City as opposed to the slums from where his main character comes from. The film is a tribute of sorts to the maid who helped raise him, much as Proust also renders homage to the maids of his own upbringing. But like In Search of Lost Time, Cuaron’s film is observant of the very class layers of his world, and in a Latin American context he also explores the fissures that can transform into eruptions.
Roma opens with water washing across the surface of a stone floor. Cuaron, who serves as his own cinematographer this time around, holds the shot. In the reflection of the water we see the minute shape of an airplane moving across in the sky. This is how we meet Cleo, as she attempts to make the floor spotless even as the house pets continue to leave trails of dogshit which the Ford Galaxy will run over. Describing Roma is the equivalent of sharing memories, as in those instances where you recall past events or flashes to someone else. The interior of the family home is not massive, but comfortable. Cuaron shoots in a black and white format that is clean and crisp, devoid of grain. Cleo is beloved by this family, yet still observes everything from the distance of a servant. The phone will ring, someone is calling for Sofia, and we get the sense it is not good, but Cleo must put the phone down. The house matriarch is Sra. Teresa (Verónica García), who has a wise kindness behind a serious face. The kids, Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf) and Sofi (Daniela Demesa) are rambunctious and mean to each other, in that way siblings tend to be (Sofi is picked on for her slight plumpness). Cleo is the definition of serenity as she stands still even when Sofia may have an outburst, which occurs more and more as the underlying tensions of the marriage emerge. But it’s not an uncomfortable home, and Cuaron captures that natural friendliness or easy going nature mixed with sternness one can find in much of Mexican urban society. In this world, class is also defined by language and Cleo speaks in her indigenous tongue with Adela (Nancy García García), the other maid.
Like Proust, Cuaron uses his craft to recover his past, here with moving images and a combination of light and sound that are breathtaking. During a nighttime outing through the city a tracking shot will follow Cleo as she looks for the kids, who have run off, and every corner, every room has activity, like countless lives and stories being lived in the metropolis. Cars, music on the radios, billboards and PRI posters all immerse us in a 1970s Mexico. And then, as Cleo reaches a newsstand, from a theater we catch but a brief glimpse of Antonio walking out with a mistress. The memory of the city is alive, but there are painful details hidden within. For Cuaron the tracking shot is a way of framing an individual or theme surrounded by an active, anarchic world. In his dystopian 2006 film Children of Men, Clive Owen will ride a train and through the windows we see a world decayed, with violence and refugees swarming all around. The film’s grand finale is a long take of Owen and a woman who has just given birth making their way through a camp in battle, as if all the factions of the world have decided to clash. In Roma, Cuaron’s camera moves like the mind’s eye, as if struggling to capture everything before it dissipates into the winds of time. In one of the film’s most silently painful moments Antonio is about to leave on another “trip,” and Sofia tries to hold on to him as Cleo and one of the boys watches from afar. There is no music score, as there rarely is in our actual memories, but the imagery and editing, in combination with the sound design, provide their own rhythm. When there is music it is the 70s Latin pop we hear on the radio, or a band marching down the street. This is the flip side of Cuaron’s brilliant technique in 2013’s Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space, where the only sound apart from the dialogue is the music score itself.
In In Search of Lost Time, Proust also playfully renders the world of the French aristocracy which surrounded him, chronicling their insecurities and jealousies, their quirks and odd features. It is almost a form of very light satire in some sections. Cuaron, too, shows us the Mexican ruling class in all its oddities. Antonio gone, Sofia will take the kids for Christmas with family friends, one who is married to an American and living out in a lush villa. In a moment worthy of Bunuel, the villa maid shows Cleo a wall where every family dog who has passed are mounted like stags, lest they be forgotten. There is a hallucinatory ambiance to a moment where everyone sits by a lake in the woods, the men shooting for sport while making quips about leftist guerrillas. At a loud Christmas party where everyone dances in the fashions of the times, lit in baroque shadows, “Jesus Christ Superstar” will spin on a record player. Later that night we come across Sofia on a balcony, staring into the night, holding in heartbreak.
But the conjurer of memories is generous in this film and also contrasts the struggles of the elite class with Cleo’s own life. Cleo falls for a tough guy, Fermin, who boasts naked in a hotel room that he is training in martial arts. When Cleo visits the camp where he trains, to announce that she might be pregnant, it becomes clear from a shot of an observer in fatigues that Fermin is training to be a paramilitary. This was the Mexico of the Cold War and the common citizen would be pulled into its social struggles. Scarcely a few years before the setting of this film, hundreds of students were mowed down by the military in the plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico City right before the 1968 Olympics. The film’s most visceral begins tenderly enough, with Teresa taking Cleo to buy a crib when a leftist march outside of the store spirals into a clash with government thugs. Notice how Cuaron keeps the camera behind the store window, to frame the utter chaos and fear of such an explosion. The scene culminates in moments of blood and agony, one shot in particular, of a student cradling a dying comrade is alone a powerful statement of the terror of state violence. But Cuaron will not end there and will continue to follow the scene into a climax in a hospital delivery room that is both wrenching and unforgettable. It could even be the best scene he has ever filmed. The outside world interrupts the more enclosed reality of Cleo’s own existence, where emotions are at times kept hidden. We cannot run from a world in convulsion and Cuaron is holding on to the memory of what such a time felt like in a Latin America of death squads.
Fittingly, Roma closes a final key sequence with ocean waves, like the waves of memory itself. Proust would describe the descent into sleep almost as a diver traveling into the deep. Fittingly, Proust has also inspired memorable cinema. The best adaptation remains the 1999 film Time Regained, directed no less by a Chilean, Raul Ruiz. Like Roma, but with a verve closer to classic Romanticism, it is a work experienced like a hypnotic haze of music, images and faces. Proust sits in his bed, recalling the past and we travel into the membrane of what he tries ever so hard to remember. In Roma, Cuaron too is making an impressive effort to preserving what once was. Yet through these recollections, Cuaron does the interesting service of transporting viewers to a world they might never know otherwise, unless you have wandered the same streets, in the same period of time. Maybe that is the cinema’s greatest gift, that through it we can share nightmares, dreams and memories, or catch a glimpse of the lives lived by another.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.