Ruminating about ‘Roma’

The director Alfonso Cuarón in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, near where he grew up in Mexico City.

You’d think I’d fall in love with “Roma,” the film that’s earned critical praise and a slew of international prizes in the last year. After all, it’s a drama (my favorite genre) set in Mexico; written, produced and filmed by an acclaimed Mexican director; and featuring a Mixtec woman as lead actress.

Last week, at the Golden Globes Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language and Alfonso Cuarón was named Best Director by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

The honors didn’t surprise me, but my initial reaction to the film gave me pause. Why didn’t I gush over it the way I did “The Shape of Water,” a fantastical fairy tale about an assuming deaf-mute janitor and a sea creature being held in captivity? That, too, was written and directed by another accomplished Mexican, Guillermo del Toro, and I found it refreshingly uplifting.

I think a small part of the answer lies in watching “Roma” on the small screen at home (thank you, Netflix), which lessened the impact of the black-and-white wide-screen cinematography. A larger part, I think, stems from not having adequate context.

It wasn’t until after I’d read a couple of reviews that I even grasped the meaning of the movie’s title, let alone its autobiographical theme. The film is named for Colonia Roma, the well-to-do neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up in a home with domestic help. The movie was filmed there with painstaking care given to recreating the 1970s era of his youth.

In the film, a young woman named Cleo works as a live-in maid and nanny for a family of five (plus a live-in grandmother) who take her for granted as she rises early to wake the kids; cooks, cleans and does mountains of laundry by hand; and helps the harried mother from unraveling while her doctor-husband is away at a conference.

Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, and it’s a marvelous thing to see an indigenous woman in a starring role. But it’s a slow-moving film — purposely slow — and while there are a couple of dramatic life-and-death scenes in a hospital and at an ocean resort, there’s no tidy resolution either.

But after learning more about Cuarón’s back story and taking into account some discussion about the technical aspects of the film by two leading movie critics, I think this is one film that I need to see again.

I’d like to think I’m not overly swayed by reviews, as I recognize that critics and the public often are at odds on what they consider a good film. In this case, these reviews in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and an interview with Cuarón himself, shed a lot more light on the director’s intentions in making “Roma.”

‘Roma’ lives up to lofty expectations with a beautiful, deliberate and ultimately moving portrait of domestic life – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Mexico City as the Director of ‘Roma’ Remembers It (and Hears It) – Kirk Semple, The New York Times

Now the question is, when do I find time for a second viewing?

Photograph: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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