The first shot in, Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film, ROMA, we see a set of tiles on the floor, as the titles begin to appear; the camera is fixed on the same image as tiny waves of water flow onto the tiles. The camera is slowly tilted up, and we see a lady cleaning the floor. As insipid as it might sound on paper, this unassuming shot, registers itself as my most favorite opening of a film. The stillness of this shot sets up the languid use of the camera, that unfolds the rest of the film for us.
The title ROMA, refers to the city/district, in which this story is set in the 1970s Mexico. Through some magically composed camera movements, the house of a middle class family is established to us, in the first few minutes. The film tells the story of the family and one of their young maids, but what the film primarily focuses on, is not the characters but their silent grieving. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a live-in maid in the house of a middle-class family, with kids, an old parent, caged birds, chained dog and a couple with an impending tragedy waiting to disrupt their perfect life. The first few minutes are dedicated to establish a fairly innocuous household. People love and care for each other. The housemaid is treated like family, the kids and her share a beautiful bonding. A particularly lovely moment early in the film, as Cleo sings to wake the little girl, is absolutely endearing. This calmness sets you up perfectly to take the emotional blow when it comes and boy, does it hurt!
Alfonso brings in the same stillness in his direction, that he had employed in his space film, Gravity. He has not only directed the film but also shot it, and co-edited and hence, the consistency in editing and cinematography. He maintains the same inherent stillness to the proceedings, even in a chaotic scene later in the film. He never compells you to feel anything. Most times, camera is fixed and lets you observe the proceedings and take in as much as possible from the imagery. There are no closeups, pan-in and pan-out of a character’s face, even in the dramatic moments, which are few and far between. The camera is only an eye and never informs you what you must feel, it rather does an excellent job of showing you what exactly the character is feeling, without any emotional manipulation whatsoever.
Another aspect of Alfonso’s direction that stands out is the staging of the scenes, however, the seamlessness in the writing and editing never gives the film a stagey feeling. Cleo and her lover are in a cinema hall, kissing. Cleo, hesitantly, informs her lover that she might be pregnant. He responds positively to the news and minutes later, leaves for the loo and does not come back. The movie ends, people clap and people leave, as Cleo is standing cluelessly in the theatre, looking for him. She walks out of the hall, looks for him in the crowd, there are people selling toys around and she sits on the stairs, as it finally sets in that he has runaway. A man selling toys, says ” No strings, No Trick ” as he shows a demo of a toy. The people clapping and leaving the hall at the end of the movie and the toys being sold outside the hall, are metaphors that capture the indifference her lover had shown towards her after having indulged in a physical relationship. Treating her like the audience would treat the movie; clap and walkway and toying with her emotions.
The choice of shooting the film in Black and White helps the film immensely. There is a certain emotion that the Black and White frames can evoke that colour would not. This film in colour would be a disaster as it would deprive it of its honesty. The director uses several recurring frames like Closed doors, flowing water ( at different intensities ), Guns, both toys and real and caged birds. Hence, achieving an astounding visual narrative that speaks to the audience.
The film does have some political vibrations in its voice. The upset students, the Gunculture and an indifferent government, in the middle of these political issues is a housemaid carrying so much more than just her grief and a spirited, yet broken wife of a man who betrayed her. In a scene, after being left alone by her lover, Cleo breaksdown confessing about her pregnancy to her employer, who herself is dealing with a man who has left her for another woman. It is unbelievable how great writing can work like gold, without the usual emotional informants like background score and camera movements. We are left alone, with these characters and their plight, without being manipulated into feeling something, yet I could not hold back my tears. The writing is superlative here, so much so that it does not really rely on the actors to perform their characters, they can just be and the excellent writing will take the burden of keeping the audience invested.
ROMA is an instant classic, that uses its atmospherics and settings to communicate to the audience, more than the actual dialogue. Alfonso does an Asghar Farhadi here, by telling a moving human story with empathy and minimum fuss. ROMA demands patience from you and in return, it is emotionally rewarding. It leaves you with a nagging pain and and an indelible sense of melancholy.