Why Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA Is Essential for Young Filmmakers
“Apart from all the technicalities that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma teaches, it should inspire a young filmmaker to be brave and compassionate.”
After more than a decade and a half since his Y Tu Mamá También, Roma takes Alfonso Cuarón back to Mexico; unlike Y Tu Mamá También, where we were, first, treated with a sweet and musical side, Roma introduces a more turbulent and paler Mexico.
A film like Roma can give a lot of knowledge and courage to young filmmakers around the world to approach stories that often come across in their lives. Roma is beautiful and powerful, like the central character of the film. The dramatic arc of the film is quite stable throughout the film, and that’s the beauty of it. It seems like the whole movie is under one dramatic unit. When I see my mother doing various things throughout the day in her ways, and sometimes, I find them very interesting and get the urge to film it, but then the first question that comes to mind is-will the audience accept a story without many dramatic beats? Every human action emits some feelings, and the stories and reasons behind them can be interesting, and if you understand the subject and know how to portray it on screen visually, it could be as beautiful as Roma.
The story takes us to the 1970’s Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, where we get connected with the life of a maid named Cleo and the family with whom she works as a live-in housemaid. We learn that the political situation, as well as the lives of the central characters of the film, is not stable. The visual grammar of the movie gives the exposition of the surrounding and helps to portray the emotion of the place and its characters beautifully. Most of the scenes have been kept open frame and from the point of view of a concerned observer, which precisely the story demanded as it is a semi-autobiographical movie by Cuarón. He took us on a beautiful journey and felt like seeing it from the director’s eyes. Although the director put us as an observer most of the time duration, there are few thrilling subjective shots, too, when we are put near the line of action. Like when the audience is put inside the operation theatre during Cleo’s delivery.
Every minute element in the screenplay has its meaning to the storyline. The director is very successful in making the internal life of the characters visible. The opening scene of Cleo cleaning the floor gives us the first impression of her moving life. Like the water thrown on the floor, her life is continually flowing. Interestingly, when the flowing water stops for a second, we get a reflection of the sky on the water and see an airplane going. It signifies the forward momentum of her life and also teaches us an important filmmaking lesson that dialogue should not always substitute an action. Unlike the other characters, Cleo’s life is more dependent on a routine; she does her work despite what is going on in her life and the surrounding. She doesn’t get much of the time to mourn her problems. To a large extent, it is because of the unconditional love she has for the kids. She finds momentary peace in talking with the youngest kid, Pepe. Somehow, I felt the storyteller sees himself in the kid. And though she follows a routine, we never get the feeling of a rut. It holds for all the characters; irrespective of the hardships around them, they are, still, trying to get on with their lives. That also adds to the perspective of forward-momentum that I have talked about earlier.
The political scenario outside the house can be sensed from the way the characters of the movie are behaving. In the first half, Antonio tries to park the fancy Galaxy car in a narrow doorway path at the cost of getting a scratch. Secondly, we can also sense it with the dog’s poop. The family accommodating with dog poop lying in the front doorway is something very unusual. Building minute visual details for these indirect illustrations make the audience connected with the turbulence outside unconsciously. A direct picture of the political situation has also been done, like Paco narrating about a boy getting shot in the head for throwing water balloons. The lack of details about the political scenario is good, as he couldn’t have compromised the storytelling. Not sacrificing any of its regionality, this also makes the story universal. About 1 hour into the film, when the family goes to their uncles’ hacienda for the New Year, there is a line where Cleo says, “This feels like my village.” This line resonates with the universality of the film. That reminds me of a line quoted, referring to The Lunchbox, by Ritesh Batra, “If you become that local and specific somehow you touch the universal.” The crisis points to the drama more emphasized in the lives of the women of the house. Through-line of the whole movie was simple, the hardships of women during the political instabilities and the prominent role they played in the lives of many.
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In Roma, audience, in certain aspects, knows few things more than the characters are aware of and in a few scenes, both the characters and the audience discover things together. For example, Sofia wasn’t there in the operation theatre unlike us, so in the shot, when we see Sofia entering the house, after parking the newly bought car, and Cleo in the same frame, we anticipated what she would say to Cleo. Similarly, about discovering things together, the final confrontation with Cleo about her pain when she finally breaks down in the beach after saving the kids from getting drowned. These kinds of plot and revelation points make us curious. There is nothing facile or unlikely about the scenes and the mannerisms of the characters. Alfonso makes us stay on track, and we don’t realize when the movie comes to its end. This screenplay can teach aspiring students so many things about dramatization. Look out how it changes between perspectives.
Commenting on the art direction and cinematography, the style of the film is naturalistic and era-based. I’m so struck by the cinematography of the movie that sometimes, I find it hard to think anything beyond it. There can be a question about the black & white composition; I think it is merely because it looked better and felt like it is from someone’s childhood memory. Color may have swayed the audience by dividing their attention towards the location and the story separately. Black & white keeps the place and the story together. There is so much to learn from the mise-en-scène of the scenes. The lightning in most of the indoor scenes is from tube lights of the house and sunlight in the day time. Artificial lighting to illuminate the scenes uses the underlying principles of motivated-lightning. The cinematography of the outdoor scenes gave us a strong sense of naturalism. For example, the rain and the sea waves felt so real. The choice of lenses to achieve the depth of frame has immensely helped in bringing out the art direction in Roma. The field of view from a wider angle lens is broader, so it is taken to accommodate the most of the surrounding in a single frame. The art direction of the film gives us a feeling of staying in the real world of 70’s Mexico.
With direction and editing, the authorial voice of the director is felt in each scene. Each frame generated anticipation, and it is simply wonderful the way each scene is framed and ended. Spatial editing helps us correlate with the structure of the house. The camera placements and movements are done intelligently, and it helps us to understand and bring out the emotions within the place, on the screen. In general, naturalistic films are shot from an objective perspective that includes lots of long takes. There is a scene in the movie where Cleo offs every tube light at night after everyone goes to sleep as the last part of her daily chores. Here in this scene, the camera moves 380 degrees from a static position following Cleo as she offs every light in the house. We followed the unfolding and uninflected action with the help of this long take.
Both the distance of the subjects from the camera and the movement of characters inside the frame are determining the subjective and objective viewpoints in Roma. Whenever the camera is placed at a distance from the characters in the movie, we act like a concerned observer, looking at them from a distance. And so, when the camera is near to them, we are inside the frame with the characters. For example, the beautiful subjective shot inside the car of the family going to the beach. Similarly, about the movement of the characters inside the frame determining the objective and subjective viewpoints-Almost, all the shots are objective whenever Cleo is doing something, like when she is attending to her daily chores; it is done to show a broader aspect of the action. The use of Alexa 65mm format came very handy for it. Subjective shots are used whenever Cleo stops for something or to rest. It happened for the first time when Cleo lies down with the smallest member of the family Pepe near the laundry for a moment, where both talk about being dead.
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There is a scene where Cleo sits quietly after her miscarriage in her room. This particular scene is compelling and heart-aching. The way this shot is taken makes the Director special. Unlike other shots in the film and the filming approach, this scene is captured in the form of a close-up shot underlying shallow depth in the frame. Also, as wider angle lenses tend to exaggerate the depth along the z-axis, Cleo’s face is in prime focus. The audience observed what Cleo went through in the hospital and watching her now from such a close distance is very emotional. Her eyes speak.
The next shot I want to talk about is the long-wide-angle static shot taken when Cleo arrives in the village. To get the audience a bit acquainted with the neighborhood, the director starts the shot before Cleo appears on the screen. If the same shot would have taken after she had arrived in the frame with a subjective viewpoint, then it would have been hard to establish a mise-en-scene of the shot depicting the surrounding. The director knew precisely when and how to start and end the shot. As in a naturalistic approach the director couldn’t use different types of camera angles, the director has to be extra careful while framing and determining screen time for long shots, in order, for the audience to assimilate with the environment and for editing aspects, too.
Last but not least, there are few beautiful Dolly Shots, and in some, it follows the characters till the end of the frame, simultaneously giving us information about the surrounding while following the characters, which holds importance in the subsequent upcoming scenes. For example, the way we come across the soldiers and protestors staging on the road while following grandmother and Cleo into the furniture shop. And most of the time, the dolly is set in a parallel position to keep the audience as an observant.
I want to say that movies like Roma remind us that only a woman can hold a household firm during storms. The voice of the character Cleo is in her eyes. Her eyes showed us the power of her endurance. I have come across strong women like Cleo, in somewhat a similar setup of what portrayed in this film, in the Tea Estates of Assam. I can see the same pain and endurance power in their eyes.
So I would like to conclude it by pointing out the two primary things, apart from all technicalities, that Roma teaches. It can inspire us to be brave and compassionate. Braveness was there in the decision that Alfonso Cuarón went back to Mexico to make this film. After winning the Oscars for Gravity, he could have done anything he wanted to, in Hollywood, but he chose to make Roma. Braveness is there in the battle of the two women, Cleo and Sofia, who are fighting against hardship – personal, financial, and societal – in the movie. Compassion, the way he treated the whole film from the color composition to the lens selections, it looked like his cherished memory. And the kindness of the three women – Cleo, Sofia and the grandmother – has it for the other. So at their age, young filmmakers need to be brave and compassionate. Be fearless in their story selection and filming approach; by brave, I don’t mean only alienated topics; simple storytelling can be bold if challenged with an engaging screenplay and visual technique. And at the same time, they need to be compassionate; they need to have a love for this art form and humanity, honest with people and their work, don’t fall for shortcuts and need to be patient with your learning.
Author: Mayur Kashyap
23-year-old, Mayur Kashyap is an aspiring actor-filmmaker.