By Subhash K Jha
“Roma” (Netflix); Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron; Rating; *** (three and a half stars)
The critics are going into a collecting swoon over celebrated Spanish cine-director Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film, an introspective brooding meditative study of the place of a house-help in a well-to-do family of Mexico.
I can understand the Western critics’ heightened impressiveness. The faithful maid is not something they meet every day. For us in Asian communities, a staunchly almost obsessively loyal house-help is not such a rare thing. My own Man Friday has been with us for 26 years. He will happily give his life for us, just like Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio, so real she is invisible) in “Roma “who, in one of the film’s most moving and edifying sequences, jumps into sinister seawaves to rescue two of the children of the family she considers her own.
Luckily for Cleo, the family loves her like one of their own. Cuaron portrays the dynamics of the household with immense intuitive warmth. Considerable time at the start of the film is spent constructing Cleo’s household routine and the unwavering rhythms of her day-to-day life. These are so lovingly detailed and so lingering you wonder where it is all leading to.
And after a point, you accept the pointlessness of Cleo’s routine as being the point.
About 10 minutes into the movie, Cleo is shown washing the home’s driveway floor in the morning, preparing for the household to wake, serving breakfast etc. Then at the end of the film when a couple of dramatic high points have given Cleo’s story a cutting edge, she is seen climbing up the stairs to the roof to wash clothes. She vanishes from camera range while we watch patiently as the end-credits roll by.
Despite its long passages of self-indulgence, “Roma” is not a boring film. Its exposition on the ennui of everyday chores is constantly kindred by a sense of unstated wisdom and comprehension of how life’s most mundane activities give it a heft in ways we can never describe. The domestic dynamics are brilliantly portrayed. Cleo is always an organic part of her employers’ household — witness the beautiful sequence when the lady of the house Sofia (Marina De Tavira) sits Cleo down with her on the sofa and holds her hand when Cleo tearfully announces her pregnancy.
But the subtle separation from the family, the class distinction, hovers at the edges ocassionallly bubbling to the surface. When Sofia in one dramatic moment, screams at Cleo she flinches slightly as though trying not to show her reaction to a slap.
“Roma” is finally a film that works for its silences. Long stretches of unspoken tranquil harmony punctured by bouts of political violence, give the narrative a feeling of a ruminative symphony. The lengthy sequence in the labour room where Cleo gives birth toAa still born baby, haunted me not just for its obvious tragedy but the compassion that the doctors shower on the traumatised Cleo. Class differences are all but forgotten.
This is Mexico in the 1970s when hierarchy must have been supreme. The film circumvents the prejudices with much pride and affection. The vintage cars, single-seater theatres and revolutionary student groups are captured in the black-and-white cinematography by director Cuaron himself, with a meticulousness which is hard to appreciate on a computer screen or, God forbid, a phone.
What stays with you is the protagonist’s selfworth duly preserved by her employers but badly battered by her boyfriend who in a bizarre sequence, shows Cleo his martial arts moves, and a lot more.
Why the full frontal nudity in a film that respects understatement in almost every frame? Or is this Cuaron’s way of telling us that aesthetic experiences are wont to be intruded upon by some display of crassness. At that moment the embarrassed Cleo becomes the cinema aesthete while her naked boyfriend is the hedonist who makes or watches “Aquaman”.
(Subhash K Jha can be contacted at [email protected])