DIR/WRI: Alfonso Cuarón • PRO: Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodriguez • DOP:Alfonso Cuarón • ED: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough • DES: Eugenio Caballero • CAST: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
The whole concept of auteur theory has come under increased scrutiny. Auteur theory considers how the worldview and work ethic of a director shapes the film he makes (canons are almost always crafted to be exclusively male for some mysterious reason). This approach is limited in its gender bias and in over-simplifying the complexities of the film production process. Those two issues certainly became prominent throughout the #MeToo revelations, where it turned out placing some directors on a pedestal facilitated their abusive behaviour. Over numerous high-profile cases of such abuse, there is now less trust in the auteur.
Many auteurs also happen to do their most pretentious and alienating work when making more introspective films. So as a fan of Alfonso Cuarón, I was worried that Roma would become Cuarón’s notorious “personal film”. After winning the Oscar for Best Director for Gravity, he could do virtually whatever project he wanted next. Why did he want to make a black-and-white portrait of an indigenous Mexican housekeeper shot in locations from his childhood? I think I may know why. And it may have a lot to say about the role of film auteur in the modern world.
Roma is named from the middle-class neighbourhood of Mexico City where Cuarón himself grew up. It follows a year in a family’s life, from 1970 to 1971, based on memories of certain moments or images from Cuarón’s childhood. He brings a twist to this very auteur-sounding concept by not following the experience of the ten-year-old son who is presumably his own stand-in. In fact, the children of this semi-fictionalised family are background characters to the main story. Roma focuses on Cleo, an indigenous housemaid of Mixtec background, played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio. Her story is based on extensive interviews with the maid from Cuarón’s own childhood.
By placing a First Nations character at the centre of this story, Cuarón has found a form of self-reflection that feels very timely. It also anchors the story around a character arc that builds momentum. This gives Roma a sense of direction and payoff lacking in, say, Boyhood, even though the films have some similarities. Both address a quirk of narrative cinema, where moments are selected to convey a story’s significance. As we ourselves experience life, we don’t live through moments thinking of them as significant to a greater whole. Roma is deceptively mundane as it shows many seemingly inconsequential moments, only to pay off what they reveal towards the film’s moving finale. There is also a sense of dread built through bad omens and sudden dramatic surprises.
At times, Roma feels like the other side of the coin to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl. That 1966 black-and-white film follows an African maid in France and was notable for being one of the first widely-seen feature films directed by an African filmmaker. Black Girl explored how marginalised peoples struggle to articulate their own stories without the approval of privileged gatekeepers. In the case of Roma, Cuarón is part of the privileged ethnic group, when compared to the Mixtec maid Cleo. In recreating his childhood from her perspective, Cuarón brings a fresh and valuable approach to the tropes of the auteur’s semi-autobiographical film.
Roma explores Cleo’s relationship with the family becoming closer. The conclusion is ambiguous about the nature of her acceptance by the family. Whether or not it can truly be free of what the status quo dictates is an uncomfortable question from which Cuarón does not shy away. It’s hard to explain without revealing more of the story, but it appears to be an issue with which Cuarón has struggled. Is this Cuarón being honest about guilt over his privilege? About revisiting his childhood from a perspective that highlights his privilege? About how much is expected from certain marginalised groups for so little in return?
The relationship between personal and political is illustrated so much better in this film than when other filmmakers attempt such films. If this is what Cuarón does when given full creative freedom, then it reveals the rawest expression of the compassionate humanism present in his other work. The slow-paced tone of the story may be challenging for what seems set to be a mostly Netflix audience. I would strongly recommend either finding a cinema screening or at least committing to watching it through in one sitting.
Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer for the first time, holds a confident command of visual storytelling. There are also self-aware visual nods to Cuarón’s other films throughout, including a short clip from 1969’s Marooned for an on-the-nose reference to Gravity. Present also are many trademarks from Cuarón’s body of work; babies and young children, uprisings and Pietà poses, outdoor restaurants and hospital stairs, indigenous languages, infidelities among the middle class of Mexico City and of course, visually-stunning extended long-takes.
But wait, didn’t we begin by questioning the modern relevance of auteurs? Well, the perspective Cuarón brings to Roma, such as we can attribute this film to his vision, does something of value. It highlights how such projects can be used for self-reflection that’s actually relevant to society. If it can be used to examine privilege, then it can lead to striking, honest works of beauty such as Roma. Roma manages to take the audience in a time machine to 1970s Mexico, while being less of an exercise in escapist nostalgia and more of a fresh confrontation with pressing, modern issues.
So consider me relieved because I usually find this kind of film problematic. If any filmmaker was going to pull it off well, it would be one as skilful as Alfonso Cuarón. With all the caveats about how auteurs are constructed, it can sometimes help us identify when a truly special filmmaker is in our midst. We are lucky to have a filmmaker like Cuarón making films at a time like this.