Director: Alfonso Cuaron
It’s weird how films can happen now. Time was when your local cinema got Star Wars six months after you read the reviews, and three months after the city centre Odeon. Then in the eighties films started to be in every single cinema in the world the day after the reviews came out, or the day before in the case of Steven Seagal movies. Now we’re back to the throttling of supply once more, only instead of your local fleapit being at the back of the queue, it’s anyone who doesn’t have Netflix. Roma, one of the foreign language releases of the year, by A-lister Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men, some Harry Potters) was in a few cinemas for a couple of week to get it into the Oscar listings. Then – bang- straight back behind the Netflix paywall to be a footsoldier in the streaming wars. Take that Prime.
Which is how I watched this film, on a friend’s reasonably large telly this Sunday. And if there’s a film I would go straight to the cinema to see it on a proper film screen it’s this. To the film’s overall tone of nostalgia and bittersweet memory we can add our own, for not being quick enough off the blocks to enjoy it as it so clearly needs to be enjoyed, on the big screen.
The film’s a deeply autobiographical work drawing on Cuaron’s middle-class upbringing in a large family living in seventies Mexico City – in the vein of Fanny and Alexander, Hope and Glory and 400 Blows. In atmosphere and authenticity it is every bit their equals, and like them draws superb performances out of young performers. The plot centres on two women: the wife Sofia and servant and nanny Cleo. Both are left by their partners and have to work out how to go forwards without these absent fathers. At the start of the film Sofia’s husband disappears, we are told as the children are, that he’s on a business trip in Quebec for research, in fact he’s scarpered. Cleo’s lover also does a runner in the middle of the film, after she tells him she’s pregnant.
But that’s not what you’ll come away remembering. Cuaron is interested – obsessed by perhaps – recreating the Mexico City of his childhood, as a place overflowing with endless people, activity and action. Virtually every scene begins with a long shot, often tracked, that roves up a street or across a crowded foyer. Cuaron’s attention to detail becomes overwhelming, even decadent. At times he recreates because he can, rather than to advance the story.
To take one example. Cleo attempts to track down her absent lover and after a bus trip she walks through a shantytown, all mud and culverts of dirty water. But she’s seen in longshot and in the background is not just a political rally, in which we hear radical politics agitating the assembled crowd, but as part of the rally there’s a human cannon in which – while Cleo walks – we watch a man get in, and be fired across the shot into a waiting net. All this takes place in the far distance.
Every shot is beautifully lit, framed and moved in, what else, gorgeous black and white. Even the family house is in constant motion – children rushing in and out, plates being laid and removed, sofas crowded by squashed-up family members. This dream-like atmosphere works superbly in the first hour, in which the wonder of the city and the teeming family home is more than enough. The longer the film goes, and it’s the now regulation 2 hrs 15 mins, the more the lack of drama starts to impinge. There are moments of jeopardy, and private tragedy, but they feel not quite earned. There’s a moment where public and private clash together that’s altogether too neat, and a moment of jeopardy at the very end that’s quite bizarre. Possibly the first time that the need to check tyre pressures has been the prelude to (almost) tragedy.
There is lots to love about this movie, and anyone who is a sucker for the myth of the auteur will enjoy this hugely, particularly when the – an – origin of Gravity comes up: the family troop off to see late-sixties Hollywood space potboiler Marooned! But – perhaps I’m carping – his heart is in the miraculous recreation of Mexico City at a Synecdoche, New York level, rather than the story.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
The aforementioned childhood of the director films.