‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

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This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceivingly mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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