I would like to start this particular post by echoing Nathan’s concerns in an earlier post about the state of the Oscars. This is usually a time of year that I really look forward to. Even when I wasn’t watching as many movies in a year as I am now, I have always looked forward to the telecast because of the sense of tradition and grandeur that it embodies. However, as I become more familiar with the Academy and the process of the awards, the more disappointed I become every year both when nominations are announced and when the telecast actually airs. One thing that has really frustrated me this year is that I keep hearing the argument that 2018 was a weak year in film. Now, if you only watched the films that received Oscar nominations from the Academy, I could understand why you feel that way. However, there were plenty of films that the Academy mostly ignored this year that are worthy of praise: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Three Identical Strangers, and Eighth Grade, to name just a few. These films were insightful pieces of art that included some of the best performances of the year. Yet, commercialized (and inaccurate) films such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book continue to be rewarded. The approach to Oscar nominations and the voting process needs to be re-examined. If they are not, we will continue to see films receive accolades that truly do not deserve them.
But, I digress. This post instead is meant to focus on a film that does deserve notice. There’s one nominee that I believe truly deserves the highest honor: Roma. Alfonso Cuaron’s latest project is a semi-autobiographical tale that follows a family, and their nanny, as they deal with familial upheaval and personal tragedy. For this particular project Cuaron exemplified the term auteur in its most extreme terms. This is a one man show behind the scenes. He himself served as writer, director, producer, and cinematographer. I’m often concerned when people do a project on this scale without input from others. But Cuaron was really able to pull it off. In a profile for Variety, Cuaron explains that he did not even get input from his close auteur friends Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Inarritu. It really goes to show how personal of a project this was for him to make. I think that level of personal dedication really shows throughout the and helps to make this story what it really is.
FAIR WARNING: This is a more thorough analysis of Roma than the review that was posted earlier. This will contain spoilers.
Let’s just start by diving into the plot. A lot of this film focuses on the day to day life of this family. There are meandering parts of the story where Cleo, the nanny, played by break out star Yalitza Aparicio, is doing the laundry, cooking dinner, or just going on a date. These moments in the story make this the most relatable narrative of the year. We are all able to see ourselves in this character in some way. There are two main parts to the story of this film: the story of their father and husband abandoning the family and the story of Cleo’s pregnancy and the eventual death of her child. These plot lines work nicely together and show the dichotomy that exists between the social classes involved in this story.
At its core, this is a story about social class. The family Cleo works for is clearly financially well off. They have a large home, they have hired help and disposable income, and the mother, Senora Sophia (Marina de Tavira) does not work. This family has a very traditional structure for the culture. Senora Sophia, the wife and mother, Senor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the husband and father, four children, and Antonio’s mother, Senora Teresa (Veronica Garcia). In all regards this is a typical well-off family for the culture and time. The juxtaposition between Cleo and the structure of this family is remarkable. Cleo is a single young woman, she shares a small room with another woman employed by the family, she is from a small village, and does not have the means to enjoy most of the luxury that the family that employs her has. The interesting thing about this particular theme though is that even though Cleo and the family are from completely different worlds, the family welcomes Cleo as one of their own. She is not necessarily treated like the help. The children adore her, she vacations with the family, and they help her to prepare for the child she is going to have. While we don’t know how much of this actually happened, as it is only semi-autobiographical, I think this was Cuaron’s small way of showing the immense respect for the woman that Cleo’s character is based on.
The more subtle theme though is that of the struggle of women during personal tragedy. Senora Sophia and Cleo bond over the separate tragedies that they face in their life. Senora Sophia’s husband abandons her and the children and she has to find a way to rebuild their life. Cleo gets pregnant and then the father does not want to take responsibility. She eventually loses her child after birth. While these struggles are very different, and still ingrained within their social classes, the women somehow become closer through it all. They become dependent on each other as a source of support when they are left to fend for themselves.
The last thing I want to say about the plot that makes it unique is how Cuaron weaves in historical events. I will admit, at times, this was not done well, but the attempt was still appreciated. There is one particular, effective, scene where Senora Teresa and Cleo are in a store looking at baby items when a riot breaks out outside. While watching the movie, if you are not familiar with Mexican history, you probably would not know that was based on a real event. It is depicting the Corpus Christi Massacre that occurred in 1971. It’s interesting to see how the political tensions of Mexico mirrored the relational tension that a single family was experiencing at the time.
I think another reason Roma needs to be considered for the Academy’s highest honor is Cuaron’s writing and directing. One of the most surprising things is the fact that as a man of a higher social class, Curaon was still able to craft a well rounded and believable story from the perspective of a nanny in the 1970s. It takes a true artist to be able to take a step outside of your own perspective in a situation and tell a story like this one. And on top of that, in his directing, Cuaron is able to take mundane actions such as a woman sitting on a bed or a man trying to park a car in a garage and turn it into a scene that the viewer will want to watch over and over again. I could go into specific scenes at this point, but honestly it would turn into a rabbit hole of me just describing the film shot for shot.
I said this in my earlier review, but I think what is most striking about Roma is that even though that it is shot in black and white and is in a different language, it is able to transcend culture. This is a story that anyone who has experienced upheaval and tragedy can relate to on some level. It doesn’t matter that you are reading subtitles or that the images aren’t in color, you are still able to feel the raw emotion that each and every character is experiencing. Often times, I feel like when we hear something is a “foreign film,” we have a tendency to shy away from it. We expect it to be something that is inaccessible to us if we aren’t part of that particular culture. That was not the case with this film. The directing and writing together make it accessible to everyone regardless of the language you speak, the country you live in, or social class you are a part of. That is what truly makes it remarkable.