Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Make no mistake, this is the industry-changing nominated film of the year.
Semi-autobiographical, the film shows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in domestic maid and the family she works for in Mexico City over the course of less than a year spanning 1970 into ’71.
Netflix-distributed with a crucial limited theatrical release, this had lots of early success and buzz at festivals, notably winning the Golden Lion at Venice. Controversy arose with the Cannes film festival when Netflix pulled premiering all their films there in response to them being restricted from competing, something that seems inevitable to change now that this has gone on to gain such widespread accolades.
The director was involved in many aspects of the production, it’s semi-autobiographical and he has credits for directing, writing, producing, editing and the cinematography, which has meant he is named on the nominations for multiple Academy Awards. The film is in beautiful evocative black and white with cinematography by Alfonso Cuarón himself and makes use of lots of camera pans, a few tilts and glides, quickly becoming a distinctive technique in the film and one Cuarón has used before. This sets the scene of any new location very well, like scanning a room in a way that feels very natural to how it would be if you were there looking around, instead of using cuts and multiple angles. If we consider the director basing it loosely on his childhood, this viewpoint makes a lot of sense, we have a childlike gaze, often to one side out of the way but looking on and taking it all in as situations unfold before us, key to the sense of naturalism the film builds.
The film has no score, all music featured is diegetic, from radios and record players in particular. It’s something I noticed right from the opening, with a static shot where you might usually expect some music there are just the background sounds of Cleo working, which I think was a great way of introducing the lead character, to hear her cleaning before we see her, a gentle start at a quieter moment in her day.
Personal drama arises on multiple fronts, for both Cleo and the family she lives and works with, as well as some serious political tensions. Cleo’s personal problems range from the daily struggles to keep on top of dog mess in the driveway, to other more life-changing situations. There’s domestic tension in the household for various reasons, but this is also beautifully contrasted with a lot of affection and tenderness. The characters live through lots of dramatic events, though many are incredibly brief and ultimately inconsequential. There are earthquakes, fires, riots, and other shocking moments in the lives of these characters, some seem to pass with no effect, others of a more personal nature will become defining moments in these character’s lives. There are also a couple of surreal moments, with characters doing odd things for a minute, sometimes with the backdrop of something entirely different. What stands in stark contrast to all these events is the way that Cleo is of such a gentle demeanour, softly spoken and generally quiet throughout, even when faced with the most harrowing experiences and difficult circumstances.
Cleo speaks two languages, Spanish and her native tongue of Mixtec. I watched it subtitled on Netflix and the different languages are distinguished with the use of brackets as it’s important to show that there’s a distinction. At times it’s indicative of a divide, between the middle-class urban family and working-class rural Cleo, something that later gets blurred through the closeness and familial nature of their interactions.
At one point the main characters go to see ‘Marooned’ at a cinema, a brief clip of that 1969 film is shown and instantly you can see it’s very much like Cuarón’s 2013 hit ‘Gravity’. He says it’s a movie he watched over and over as a kid and was absolutely an influence on him when making that film. It’s a little reminder that he’s at least partly the influence for one of the family’s sons and that there are parts of the film that have been drawn from his childhood, things he must have lived through or that shaped his family and himself growing up. Some of what we’re watching depicted, lots of it difficult to see, are unavoidably drawn from memories and real experiences of those close to the director, which makes it all the more powerful.
A lot of directors start their careers with films like this, drawing on life experiences and making low-budget autobiographical films. Cuarón seems to have saved this for a time in his career where he has earned a considerable level of creative freedom, able to exercise full control over making the film exactly as he wants, in the original language, black and white, unscored, yet given a larger audience than a film like this would usually ever have a chance at, thanks to the Netflix distribution. I’m really pleased that he has been able to do this and that I have had the ability to enjoy it on release in my living room, as a film like this would normally be a struggle to track down in cinemas. Even though it’s emotionally difficult to watch in places, the physical ease of access to it being only a click or two away, maybe more people will give Cuarón a chance to show them this beautiful depiction of the world he grew up in, that fascinating part of the world, the deeply personal lives of these characters and the loyal caring maid who quietly becomes an invaluable part of their family.
Even if it doesn’t win many, ‘Roma’ is changing the film industry with its 10 nominations at the Oscars, which follow the 7 nominations with 4 wins at the BAFTAs last weekend. It is a Netflix movie by a prestige director that’s getting all the awards recognition (literally hundreds of nominations and a better than 50% win rate) you would expect for a film of such a calibre, regardless of the distribution method.