Synopsis: A young woman in Mexico City circa 1970 works as a maid and de facto nanny for a family in crisis while trying to live her own life as well.
Obviously weekends are meant for movies so as the week rolls to a close I check out the movie schedules. I’d rather not go to the theater alone so I quickly set about recruiting a friend or family member to join me for a film of our (ie, my) choosing.
I look forward to the joys of communal viewing, such as whispering during previews: That will suck (companion chuckles) and the standby, That looks good (Yes, companion affirms). And — this part is very important– I absolutely need to start discussing the movie as soon as the credits roll. My loved ones know that I have strong opinions about films and they are expected to agree with me. (I am still mad at my brothers because they were “not impressed” by Dunkirk.)
Sometime I have to go to the movies by myself. (Nothing to do with my intense post-cinema speeches, of course.) When I go solo I feel both invisible and like a spectacle. After choosing a seat, I invariably see a few other “lonelies.” Who are these weirdoes? I wonder. Then I remember that I am one of them. Mercifully, the lights go down and we are all immersed in movieland. When the film ends and the lights go on, I try to leave the theater as inconspicuously as possible while my fellow humans smugly enjoy each other’s company.
I’m sure you’ve been there too. So you can imagine my delight when I was able to watch a first run movie solo, but not lonely. Thanks to the powers that be (Netflix), I got to lie on my couch while watching Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical Roma.
Know this, dear reader, Alfonso Cuaron can do no wrong. He has displayed his deft filmmaking skills in Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, Gravity and my fave HP movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Roma, he has his magnum opus. Aside from writing and directing the film, he also serves as director of photography, like it’s no big deal. Every frame is beautiful. (His usual DP, Emmanuel Lubezki must be proud.) All other filmmakers step aside so he can receive his Oscars.
Cuaron says Roma is a tribute to his childhood nanny, Libo. The housekeeper character, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is her representation as someone typically in the background takes center stage. Cleo rushes about cleaning and serving and gently tending to the kids and the family dog. The family includes two middle school-aged boys, an elementary school-aged girl and the youngest brother, Pepe. He is a dreamy and imaginative child who likes to tell Cleo stories about “when I was an old man…” The dad is a selfish doctor who practically ignores the family. He grouses to the mom about the state of the household. The mom is hard pressed, managing the family and trying to please her husband.
She, in turn, grouses to Cleo about her work. Life pushes and pulls at each one. Cleo presents as stoic and naïve; her face nakedly hopeful. But life, not surprisingly, has a way of kicking about poor indigenous girls. Now, if it wasn’t Cuaron, I wouldn’t think there would be anything enthralling or innovative in the story of a struggling domestic worker, probably just melodrama. But then I had an encounter that un-explains any movie goer expectations about Roma …
A number of days after seeing Roma, I’m at a diner solo when my ears perk up to the convo @ the booth behind me…
Someone in the trio– the one who loudly ordered vanilla ice cream on waffles –exclaimed, “Poor Cleo!” and I knew right away they were discussing Roma. “She seemed more like a slave than anything else.” ( First off, yum on the ice cream contrivance. Secondly, after the movie I read that many indigenous people were displaced from rural areas due to government policies wreaking havoc in the countryside. They ventured to urban areas looking for any job.)
“Well, right,” continued their companion. “It’s an allegory of how history bludgeons the individual to the point that–there is no agency… or freewill!” (Hello, young revolutionary! Time to cease my phone browsing and dedicate myself to eavesdropping.) The third member of the group piped up inspite of a painful-sounding raspy voice, “But she did make choices. Like with the boyfriend.” (Who was clearly a psycho.)
The Dessert Innovator brought up one of the red flags about the boyfriend, “When he was butt-naked doing martial arts with a shower rod…that was time for goodbye.” (Agreed.)
“But given the constraints of her background and status, she was at such a disadvantage,” pointed out the Young Revolutionary. (A friend-tervention for Cleo was needed.)
I ordered another soy latte and took notes on my phone like a good spy. Some comments from Dessert Innovator, Young Revolutionary & Raspy, in no particular order…
“What condition did the dog have? His s&%t was all over the driveway?” (Yes, the family should bring Borras to the vet. Or change his disagreeable kibble.)
“Was that an Oaxacan dialect?” (Cleo and her friend speak Mixteco.)
“Maybe the reality of the past is only seen in full relief during recollection.” (Or not.)
“The stunt guy the kids saw on TV pulling the car with his teeth… was he the paramilitary instructor too?” ( Yes. You never know when your tank might run out of gas & you have to pull it with your teeth.)
“The digital black and white photography allowed the viewer to visit the past.” (Disclaimer: Unfortunately filmmaking has not progressed to the point where the spectator can literally time travel.)
“Everyone else was freaking out, throwing water on the forest fire while that guy with the plants on him stood around singing in…it wasn’t Spanish.” (The song was in Norwegian. The plants outfit? New Year’s Eve drunken inspiration?)
“Why didn’t they give her birth control information at the hospital? (The Patriarchy.)
“I liked when the family was trying to enjoy their cones with the Godzilla-size crab behind them. (Me too! The crab seemed more Mothra-sized to me though. Oh, and the crab wasn’t real; it was constructed as part of a restaurant. )
“What was written on screen? I need to look it up…” (I already did! It’s Shantih Shatih Shantih. The words finish the T.S. Eliot essay “The Wasteland.” Shantih means Peace in Sanskrit. It is also Alfonso’s way of saying: All that happens to humanity in this world is an age-old story that can only be borne through Grace. And I am a visionary deserving of many Academy Awards.