'Roma' (2018) Review: A Tale in Black and White

By: Larissa Couto

Winner of a Golden Globe and with ten Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Best Actress), Roma is one of the best Alfonso Cuarón’s films. A personal story based on the director’s own childhood memories, the movie has perfect cinematography that invites the viewer to the black and white journey of Cleo, via Cuarón’s memory fragments and a good amount of sentiment.

Mexico, 1970. The viewer is slowly transported to the Mexico City of Cuarón’s memory. From the floor tiles to the airplane in the sky, the director tells us the tale of his childhood in the years of 1970 and 1971. The main character, Cleo, is the domestic worker of a middle-class family whom we follow, from a safe distance, trying to know her through the eyes of Cuarón. The story is a beautiful composition about social hierarchy and reminiscence. Crafted in impecable visages, the black and white aesthetic manages to take us from the present to a different artistic realm where things are instantly “in the past.” This clever choice by Cuarón is already a complex argument about what we’re seeing: the story could be happening now, today, but it’s not merely in the past—it’s a memory, a story, it’s, most of all, fiction. It’s the detailed narrative we hear when a parent shows us a picture and takes us to their time; but if we ask about the lady standing on the corner there’s a lot of love without enough introduction. That’s Cuarón’s Cleo. From her first scene we look at her from a distance: no close-ups, no dialogues. She makes the bed and we watch, quietly, for her service to be done.

Cleo doesn’t talk much, and no one bothers to ask what she thinks or feels—as the film continues, we, the viewer, also start to be satisfied with the little information we see. We know Cleo as Cuarón remembers her and tells us, and that’s not enough. Roma is a representation of
the director’s childhood memory; we see this in the film when we notice that the simplified choice in presenting Cleo is not only part of a social critique, but mainly a description of someone we liked as a kid and for whom we can only access highlights from our own childhood—and small pieces of information from our parents, for example. However, Cleo’s story is not simple, or common; it’s painful and complex. If only we could sit with an older Cleo to ask her what and how she remembers of her own story, to grasp the little details we see vastly through the eyes of a third person without ever paying attention to the person behind the happening.

As a storyteller, Cuarón does his best at exercising his auteur signature, building already classic scenes such as the father of the family trying, poorly, to park his car. Even for a character we don’t see on the screen for more than two scenes, we know everything we need to in one unforgettable scene. And, in this scene also, we look with a child’s eyes, without fully understanding, but keeping the image and the sounds of the moment. Some have smells as a key to the past, but Cuarón seems to appreciate sounds. Well explored in Roma, they’re part of the narrative as a paragraph ending: the marching band, the shots, the waves. During the movie we’re immersed by Cleo’s black and white discreet strength, we don’t analyze her, we feel—but don’t feel with her. There’s always a distance. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes we see her and the horror she stares at, but we never see her tears, we’re prevented from sharing her pain. Every moment we ask about Cleo is as if Cuarón tells us: “it’s hard to know.”

Roma’s story doesn’t fail us, it fails Cleo. But, in the end, Cuarón was telling us his memories and pointing to the fact that society never asked people like Cleo their stories. At the end of the movie, after a heroic act we have the few words that are Cleo talking for herself. With the way the story is being told, from a third person’s perspective, this moment becomes powerful and we, with Cleo, release the silence and feel closer to her. From the tiles to the sky the director opted to show us an airplane, first through the reflection on the water, and lastly with the camera pointing straight at it. The airplane metaphor is one more brilliance of Roma using images to tell the story. At first we see in close-up the floor and are only able to notice the airplane through the reflection of a watery mirror created by Cleo; in the end we can look at the airplane without help, although we stare from a long distance, incapable of describing details.

Grade: A


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