The Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, has produced a bewildering variety of films. His 2001 Y Tu Mama Tambien is a provocative road trip where two teenage boys discover their sexuality as they drive with a woman in her late twenties. From sex, Cuaron stepped onto fantasy with his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, but his next movie was fascinatingly different.
Gravity came in 2013 kickstarting the Venice Film Festival, and we found two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, getting lost in space! And now this year at Venice, the auteur presents an impactful social study of Mexico City in the 1970s. Interestingly, he shot, co-edited, wrote and directed Roma, and that is name of the movie.
The aspect that caught my attention was the kind of egalitarianism which prevailed then, despite devastating social and political upheavals and the emotional disturbances that one aristocratic family faces. In black and white, Cuaron tells us the story of a maid whose shattered romance intertwines with the misfortunes of the family she works for.
The very opening shot draws us into a social hierarchy where we see an ornate marble floor being washed with soap water by the maid of the house, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). She is exceptionally efficient, taking care of her mistress (Sofia), her husband, four naughty children and a dog. The children tease each other, and one of them imagines himself to be living a previous life. The father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is pompous, and we see him arrive in a huge car that he barely manages to get inside the garage.
Roma is certainly Cleo's story, and yet she hardly speaks and goes about with a stoic silence which hides the deep love and loyalty she has for the family. This comes to the fore during a beach trip when two of the children are saved from drowning by her even though she does not know how to swim. The family, in turn, takes good care of her, and when she gets pregnant and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) deserts her, Sofia proves to a pillar of strength. This despite she too being in the middle of a crisis with Antonio having run away with his mistress.
Cuaron gives us impressively contrasting pictures. There is decadence as we see it in Sofia's household, while social unrest and Marxist ideology play outside. Land is grabbed, and student demonstrations turn ugly and violent with a State-sanctioned attack on them. Sofia's family out on the streets then has a narrow escape with bullets flying all around.
What is absolutely lovely about Cuaron's way of narrating the story is his underwhelming approach. There is an earthquake seen in a children's nursery, there is a glimpse of Antonio's mistress, and there is of course Cleo's tragedy, but all these have been scripted without a dramatic fuss.They all pass by as if they were one more incident in the life of Cleo and Sofia, a life where the men prove to be unethical and cowardly. If Antonio goes away without even a goodbye to his children, Fermin leaves Cleo alone in a theatre foyer after she tells him that she might be pregnant.
A lovely film that will hopefully clinch a Golden Lion.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Venice Film Festival for over 15 years)