Friday, January 25, 2019

Roma: Anarchy and Repression in an Epic B&W Mexican Drama

By José Alberto Hermosillo
“Roma” Anarchy and Repression in an Epic B&W Mexican Drama- Festival in LA ©2019 Netflix

“Roma” is a film of extraordinary beauty, endless poetry, and a strict humanistic, sociological, and political approach. 

This exceptional black-and-white Mexican drama reaches universality when we discover its emotional layers beneath the compelling story.

Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood memories center on the importance of “place” and “time,” two of the most conclusive elements to appreciate the true meaning of “Roma.”

In “Roma,” women are portrayed as brave, fearless, and lonely. They look out for themselves, support each other, and care for their children. Men are unaccountable, and their infidelity, irresponsibilities, and ever-present machismo push them out of the picture.

Roma, Netflix screening at the Academy. Photo Jose Hermosillo ©2019 Festival in LA

Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is remarkable, playing Cleo, “Roma’s” central character.

She is the nanny for four kids: a little girl and three young boys, of which Alfonso is the hard-headed middle child. The little one is Carlos, the one with a vivid imagination, also an Oscar nominee filmmaker.

Cleo has an affair with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). He and hundreds of other trainees are young counter-fighters skilled by an American CIA agent and a Korean trainer. They are hired to brutally repress the leftist rioting students.

“Roma” doesn’t tell you that in 1971, right after the Olympic Games Mexico 68 and the 1970 Soccer World Cup, Mexico City was on the verge of anarchy. 

The protesters are depicted in the film as “victims.” And yet, these alleged victims were also breaking the law, beating-up business owners, patrons, and workers - stealing, looting, scrawling graffiti, and hurting innocent people.

Furthermore, those actions by the students don’t justify the government’s killing of more than a hundred people in the “Corpus Christy Massacre,” depicted in the film, when Cleo and the grandmother enter the furniture store to buy the baby’s cradle.
“Roma” tries to set Mexican history right but fails to show both sides of the “tortilla.”

Alfonso Cuarón’s personal political agenda accuses and points subtle fingers using subliminal symbolism. 

The propaganda elements give the appropriate atmosphere to the film. But even these are open to interpretation, and many witnesses of those tumultuous times can relate to the events differently.

Most of Cuarón’s films are encapsulated in “time frames.For instance, “Gravity” occurs when a shuttle does one lap orbiting around the Earth. While in “Roma,” the time frame elapses during Cleo’s nine months of pregnancy.

At the beginning of this essay, we spoke about the importance of “place,” not precisely physically at any given location but as a transitional arena where the events occur. 

In the “Colonia Roma,” people pass by without stopping. Perhaps their destination could be the Zócalo, but we are not supposed to know that. That is why the framing of the film is purposely narrowed.
Alfonso Cuarón working in Roma behind the scenes ©2019 Netflix.

The cinematography of “Roma” is breathtaking, and Cuarón took care of the camera. Besides the beauty and emotional impact, other stories are told in the background through its plethoric symbolism. 

The luminous black-and-white photography is reminiscent of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

Building the sets was complicated because it took work to recreate 1971 Mexico City accurately. The area was destroyed by two major earthquakes over the years.

Production designer and Oscar© winner Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “A Monster Calls”) also grew up in Cuarón’s neighborhood. The long pre-production included exhaustive research to adequately capture the specific political moments in the story.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma ©2019 Netflix

It is fascinating to identify the scenes referring to the films produced by Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Cuarón himself (“The Three Amigos”).

Example: the extended scene where Cleo enters the sea to rescue little Sofi--- similar to the one where Maribel Verdú goes into the water in “Y tu mamá también.” 

Another example: is the European guy inside the costume at the party in the woods; it is a tribute to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” 

Finally, the dog “El Borras” escaping the house references “Amores Perros.”

Those fun-to-watch passages are easily identified for their perfect recreation and camera direction by Cuarón’s impetuous eye.

Roma behind the scenes ©2019 Netflix

This autobiographical feature set in the 1970s has influences from the Italian Neorealistic Period. The black-and-white epic has no music score, and the songs are incidental and come out on the radio or TV. And those songs set in motion the characters’ mood. 

The sound is an essential part of the film. Those sounds give the climactic moments a hyper-realistic effect and a lively sensation of experiencing the events that connect them with nature, like the earthquake and the ocean waves.
Roma’s real family members and the actors who played them.

“Roma’s” Casting Directors searched vigorously to find people who physically and emotionally resembled the original family. 

They went as far as Tlaxiaco in the southern state of Oaxaca to discover the lead actress Yalitza Aparicio, a simple kindergarten teacher at the time.
Yalitza Aparicio, Kindergarten Teacher. Festival in LA.

Yalitza said, “It was a real-life experience to work with Alfonso Cuarón.” And she was fortunate to meet Cuarón’s honest nanny, Libo.

Before the film shoot, the two women talked voraciously about their roots. Both women had come out of an indigenous, marginalized community. 

“Libo is a woman with a big heart,” Yalitza said. “I wished to honor her life with my performance, for Libo gave her work and heart to the Cuarón Family.”

In the most awarded film of the year, the audience cares for every character without sugar-coating their emotions.

The film has elements of magic realism. The famous Professor Zovek (an actor named Latin Lover) standing on one leg brings moments of humor.

Latin Lover as Professor Zovek in Roma ©2019 Netflix

For the director, “Roma” is a corridor full of memories. Cuarón wanted to keep it accurate, so he did not give the entire script to any actors or crew members. He wanted realistic reactions and the actors to concentrate on the family’s journey spontaneously.

Roma behind the scenes ©2019 Netflix

The Academy® Award-winning director said, “The events depicted in ‘Roma’ have repercussions in present-time where hate and exclusion show the vulnerability of the human race.”

The Golden Lion winner also reminds us: “When we are watching a movie, spectators have the same experience; they open their senses and relate to the story. It is part of human nature.” He added: “The diversity of colors is the richness of our society.” 

For many critics, including myself, “Roma” is the best movie of the year, not only for how the film looks but also for how it makes us feel.

“Roma” is a significant accomplishment for all the talented people who participated in the making and for Alfonso Cuarón, who deserves the glory in the Parthenon of the most visionary directors in Contemporary Cinema.

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