A Roma of totally another kind
Chalo, let me add to the list of the number of people calling Alfonso Cuaron's latest as the year's finest film!
Think it takes balls of precious Mexican steel to come back after delivering a $700 million earner like Gravity (2013)—created fully inside a severely controlled environment, literally approximating outer-space—with a film like Roma (that recently dropped on Netflix), that is so inherently internal, starring non-professional actors, set in a household, chiefly decorated with personal family memories, that one wonders if Alfonso Cuaron, the director for both, is actually the same guy, only a few years apart!
But then again, I'm pretty certain every movie-buff worth their salt distinctly remembers when/how they caught the teenaged road-trip Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)—in my case, totally stunned, sitting quiet for much after, in my room—to not be surprised by Roma at all.
Y Tu is how we first got to know Cuaron—around the same time that we were equally struck by the director Alejandro Innaritu (Amorres Perros; 2000), with Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth; 2006) joining in, to form a rather coincidental trio of the most exciting, contemporary Mexican voices on the global scene; somewhat in line with the American Spielberg-Lucas duo, from the generation before. At their best, what sets Cuaron, Innaritu, del Toro apart? Audacity of ambition, for one. The fact that they possess distinctly original voices, for sure. But more so their ability to apply exquisitely textured production design, camera-work to draw you into a unique movie universe, sometimes sprinkling it with magic of an inexplicable kind, which great movies are made of.
What sets Roma apart, though? That besides all of the above, it remains a fine example of an "empathy generating machine" that my favourite film critic Roger Ebert once pithily described a great film as. The New York Times, in its lovely post-release profile of Cuaron, has generously compared portions of Roma with Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game (country-estate party scene), Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (climax sequence on a beach), Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (landscape of urban poverty).
But I think Roma's true, worthy precursor is the more recent, brilliant Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014), about a boy simply growing up between age six and 18 (shot in real-time), with divorced parents in Texas. Much to my disappointment, bordering on heart-break, Boyhood lost out on the Best Picture Oscar that year to Innaritu's Birdman, which was a great film, yes, but hardly path-breaking, or even stirring enough.
Roma, named after an upper-class neighbourhood, similarly recreates the beats and rhythms of life itself, almost testing bounds of what a film, whether driven by character or plot can do—almost veering towards a close cinematic equivalent of literary fiction. The cast and crew, I'm told, were handed no script. Actors were given their dialogues on the morning of shoot. They were often expected to naturally react to situations, as they would, if they were the characters themselves.
And this is Cuaron pretty much mining from his childhood memories to script a memoir of his home, which more than anything else—with the glass main-gate, verandah, side-view towards the terrace—is undoubtedly the film's central character. This may sound like a frightening prospect, if at any point in time, as a writer-filmmaker, one develops self-doubts, assuming that people may not give a shit, and dump it as sheer self-indulgence instead.
Secure as a self-assured master, Cuaron sticks to long, lingering visual passages instead, gently guiding you into his world of adolescence, set in 1970s Mexico, seamlessly intermixing the personal with the public, even political, as a record of history, proving the thumb-rule that you have to be specific in order to be universal.
Maybe the upper-middle classes in the Third World are all the same. I'm almost certain Indians of a similar demographic will be able to see their own stories in Roma. Which, by the way, is effectively the story of the house-maid, instead of Cuaron, who remains as much the observer, as a little boy in the film, as the 57-year-old filmmaker behind the camera—wonderfully painting bleak scenes, in black and white, around the life of the domestic help who raised him, but whose own life would usually remain in the unseen background, an indelible blind spot, at most rich homes.
I watched Roma, like a novel, before the small screen, by myself, rather than as a collective, theatrical experience. Does that take away from the mastery of a movie inevitably designed for the big-screen? Well certainly not in the same way as if you had watched Gravity on anything but the IMAX, since the whole point of that experiential picture is to leave you giddy, floating in space.
Either way, Netflix decided to empower the storyteller rather than worry about budgets, and box-office receipts. I can't see how else, after the $100 million Gravity, could Cuaron get away with sucking you in, to observe child-birth, over a scene that's more than a few minutes long, set simply on an operation table. And, yes, you're hit—not just moved. It's a masterpiece.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to email@example.com
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