Monday, December 17, 2018

Emotional tools

Alfonso Cuarón stated that he wanted to make his latest film, Roma, 12 years ago, right after he made the highly-regarded Children of Men. But he also said that he now feels it was a good thing that he didn't do that, since he lacked the "emotional tools" to tell the story properly. Given that Roma is a story based on those emotional tools that all of us use in daily life, I think he may have been correct in both doing and saying so.

Roma is a story told from the perspective of Cleo, a cleaning woman in a well-to-do household in Mexico City in 1970. The story is semi-autobiographical, as Cuarón grew up in the Roma neighborhood of that city and wanted to convey something about his childhood there. It becomes quickly apparent that the youngest of the four children, Pepe, is the stand-in for the director as he spends most of his time observing what is happening and spending time getting Cleo's feedback on events in the household; just as Cuarón did in preparing for the film, through extensive conversations with his own childhood housekeeper. The traumas that engulf Cleo and the members of her family (as this is clearly what they are) are not exotic or complicated in a storytelling sense, but they carry the complexity that emotional situations of this kind always have. So, in a sense, Roma is not complicated, but it carries great emotional depth because it's something that is both instantly relatable for many people and still foreign enough (leaving aside the dual subtitles; Spanish and Mixteca) to hold one's interest. Cuarón emphasizes that simplicity with the opening shot of the film over which the credits are depicted, which is nothing but the tile of the driveway, occasionally broken by water and soap suds, which we later discover is Cleo cleaning dog shit off that driveway. But it's that simple take on an everyday task that becomes entrancing when contrasted with the dense emotional interplay of the characters.

The film is also a woman-focused story, in that men are largely absent other than a couple of key moments, while everyone else deals with the impact of those moments or the impact of their absence afterwards. Fermin, Cleo's boyfriend, we eventually learn is a member of Los Halcones (from the Corpus Christi massacre), a paramilitary group trained by the government (and funded by the CIA) to react to student demonstrations. He impregnates and then abandons her before later reappearing in the midst of one of those demonstrations with severe consequences on whether she can have that baby. Antonio, the father (figure) of the family, whose most notable contribution to it is the Galaxie which can barely fit into their driveway, later abandons both car and family, leaving all of them to deal with the repercussions. Indeed, Antonio is so much an afterthought in the film that we never a closeup on his face or even see it for longer than a split second. Again, these aren't complicated storylines. The plot is not dense. The beauty of the film comes across in how simply it's told, with Cuarón's love of long shots (the opening, Cleo sitting in the theater waiting for Fermin to return, staring at the bumper of the Galaxie while Antonio tries to maneuver it inside) and stark imagery keeping the viewer paying attention to the most detailed things provided to them: the characters' faces and the emotions flowing across them. The decision to shoot it in digital black-and-white maintains that simple and spartan approach to the vision that the director wanted to convey.

There's been some debate about whether the "appropriate" venue in which to screen the film is in a theater or at home on Netflix. Cuarón, as one might expect, chimed in with his opinion at a recent event that Roma is best viewed in a theater. I think that's probably based on the mindset he wants his audience to have. In a darkened theater, there are no other distractions, visual or otherwise, and you experience the film the way he does: as memory, quietly, intimately. We ended up watching it on Netflix and perhaps that's why, despite its obvious high points, I found myself less impacted by it than I had anticipated. As noted many times before, I'm a story guy. I want you to tell me a story that holds my interest. I think Cuarón does that, but it's not a story that sat with me or had me mulling it over days later. I was entertained by it. I was fascinated, as usual, by the craft which he demonstrates in all of his films. But I found it far less earth-shattering than many other people have. I can definitely recommend carving a couple hours out of your life to sit in front of it, wherever you do so, and would be interested to hear others' experience from seeing it in theaters. But it's not a film that I would urge people not to miss. As much as I enjoyed the story, it's like many others out there.