Roma: The handmaid's tale
Roma is the kind of film that demands to be rewatched. The film’s beating heart is its story. It shows Mexico City in the early 1970s from the perspective of Cleo, a middle-class family’s maid — a character inspired by director Alfonso Cuarón’s live-in nanny who helped raise him. But apart from the plot, it is Cuarón’s craft that makes Roma an enriching cinematic experience. Through symbolism and metaphors, the director tells a story that is not just about Cleo and the family she works for but about a society on the brink of a meltdown.
The film is set at a time when a civil war – the so called Dirty War – between the then ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups, were starting to impact the day-to-day lives of Mexico’s citizens. And, yet, the protagonist here is not a protesting student or an army official but a domestic worker who spends most of her day indoors. Of course, a big motivation for putting Cleo’s story front and centre is Cuarón’s personal relationship with the woman behind the character. But this choice also allows the film-maker to expertly create a safe space inside a house where the tensions of the outside world start to slowly creep in as the film proceeds.
Roma’s first shot is a master act in dialogue-free storytelling. It runs for a good five minutes. For the first three minutes, we see a tiled floor and hear someone cleaning in the distance. After some time, soapy water starts to make its way into the shot. Reflections of the sky and the house appear on the bubbly surface of the water. Soon we see the reflection of a plane flying in the sky. This moment perfectly brings together the inside and the outside in the same visual. The camera then tilts up, following the water as it starts gushing back towards a drain. We then follow Cleo as she cleans while Borrace, the family’s beloved dog, walks around behind her. This shot sets the tone and pace of the film. Cuarón meticulously creates a world for his characters to exist in and, then, he simply places his camera amid them and lets the action unfold.
The idea of the inside being a safe haven is further accentuated by the presence of Borrace. Time and again, we see the dog at the gate of the house. He wants to go outside but the maids hold him back. Every time they open the gate to let someone in or out, they grab Borrace’s collar. “Don’t let him out,” someone or the other exclaims each time. We also see Borrace jumping behind the closed gate as we hear stray dogs barking on the outside.
But unlike Borrance and Cleo, children in the family spend a lot of time out in the city. When they come back in, they bring along some of the outside world. The first time we hear a child speak, he is telling the story of another child who was throwing water balloons on cars passing by. “Then an army jeep drove by; the kid throws a balloon at it. The soldier gets mad, he gets out, and shoots him.” A concerned Cleo asks if the shot child is okay. “He shot him in the head. He’s dead,” the child responds nonchalantly.
The audience does not leave the comfort of the indoors for the entire first act of Roma. We finally accompany Cleo outside when she goes to see her boyfriend Fermin. This is where we see anti-PRI posters. We see protestors. We see how conflict and daily life coexist. This is also where Cleo’s troubles begin.
Cuarón goes to great lengths to recreate the outside scenes the way he remembers them. Parts of Roma are actually shot on the street where he grew up. The house in the film is also a reproduction of his childhood home — built in the 1930s with a narrow garage. It is in this garage that the film starts and ends; it is also where Borrace lives and Cleo spends many hours of her workday. Even the car featured in the film is of the same model that Cuarón’s parents had. These choices suggest something beyond the film-maker merely sharing his own memories with his audience.
When we are introduced to Dr Antonio, the patriarch of the household, he is struggling to park his car. The 1970 Ford Galaxy is too wide for the narrow garage. “The galaxy was a status symbol, even if it was completely unpractical,” Roma’s production designer Eugenio Caballero said in an interview. The car also serves both as a symbol for the frustrations of Antonio’s wife after he leaves her and their family, and a metaphor for how ultimately she takes charge of the household.
Cuarón meticulously creates a world for his characters to exist in and, then, he simply places his camera amid them and lets the action unfold.
Roma was shot on 70 mm film in black and white — as another attempt by Cuarón to recreate the era the story is set in. It also shows the director’s love for the art of film-making as does the fact that Roma’s characters go to cinemas multiple times in the film. One of the film’s most crucial scenes, in fact, happens when Cleo and Fermin are watching a French film at a theatre. At another point, we see shots of Marooned, a 1969 American film about astronauts. (When Cuarón directed his Oscar award-winning film Gravity (2013), he mentioned being inspired by Marooned.)
The moments in Roma that look at the communal cinema experiences of the past are bittersweet bits of nostalgia. The film has been released on Netflix, getting only a limited cinema release and generating a heated debate among the film-making community. It is difficult for the purists to see a film-maker of Cuarón’s stature choosing to release his film online. The limited theatre release is another choice that has raised eyebrows. This is clearly Netflix’s attempt to enter Roma in the Academy Awards race (since a film is not eligible for an Oscar unless it has had a theatre release). A film like Roma surely deserves to qualify for the award but, then, it can be argued that a film created with such painstaking attention to detail also deserves to be seen on big screens.
Maybe it is not entirely a bad thing that the film has been released on a platform that allows viewers to easily pause, rewind and rewatch it. Surely, there is much to be unpacked in Roma which is easily Cuarón’s most impactful work so far.
The writer was a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.