For the record, no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. They’ve been nominated before but never won. Roma could just be the first. It has the story and all the other ingredients to do it.
The story begins in late 1970 as the maid Cleo is cleaning the driveway to the garage of the house she tends to. The house she tends to belongs to a couple, Sofia and Antonio, the grandmother, and their four children in the affluent Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Cleo and Adela, both indigenous, are the two live-in maids. The parents see Cleo as their maid while the children look up to her and talk to her often. The driveway and garage is the place where the dog is left to stay while the family is gone during the day.
The driveway and garage is too small for the big car Antonio drives, frequently bumping into the sides and driving over the dog droppings. That even comes in private conversation as Antonio angrily tells Sofia about all the dog droppings on the driveway. Cleo notices that, as normally Antonio is not that angry. Antonio, a doctor, mentions to all he’s going off to a brief trip to Quebec for a conference. He returns days later, but says he will be going to Quebec for a few weeks. The children believe it, but Cleo and Sofia sense something is wrong. Cleo knows it because she saw his wedding ring in the drawer.
Life for Cleo and Adela does not always revolve around the household. Both have boyfriends: Adela has Ramon and Cleo has Fermin. One night they all decide to go to the movies together, but Cleo and Fermin sneak away to rent a room. Before they make love in the bedroom, Fermin shows Cleo the martial arts skills he learned with a shower pole. Fermin tells Cleo that this is what gave him, an orphaned boy, his will to live.
Some time later, when Cleo and Fermin are watching a movie, Cleo tells Fermin she’s pregnant. Fermin says he has to be gone for a bit, but doesn’t return. Cleo tells Sofia that she thinks she’s pregnant. Sofia takes her to the hospital Antonio works at. While waiting in the maternity ward, an earthquake happens. Cleo learns from the doctor she is pregnant.
Cleo and Sofia try to carry on with their lives despite their difficulties. Sofia takes her children, Cleo and Adela on a New Year’s trip to a hacienda owned by her Norwegian-Mexican friends. Before the party, we hear a conversation about recent tensions over the land. The celebrations begin with festivities and fun for the children. However just before midnight, a fire erupts in the forest. As everyone is trying to put the fire out, a man counts down the seconds to New Years Day 1971 and sings a Norwegian lullaby.
Back in the city, Sofia organizes a movie night with the grandmother, the four children, Cleo and Adela. As they wait in line, Cleo notices Antonio. He hasn’t left for Quebec at all. In fact he’s holding the hand of another woman. Sofia has known this all along, but she wants to conceal it from the children until the time is right. Though one son, Paco, does notice it. Sometime later, Adela tells Cleo Ramon has been able to locate Fermin attending outdoor martial arts classes. Cleo watches the class, and is even willing to participate (and does the blind-balanced exercise better than the male students). As the class ends, she confronts Fermin, but Fermin refuses to acknowledge the baby. She tells her to leave or he’ll beat her and the unborn baby.
Time passes and the baby is almost due. The grandmother takes Cleo crib shopping one day. However a student protest takes place. The protests turn brutal as police respond with clubbings. Then violence erupts as a group of youth — strongly believed to be the paramilitary group The Hawks — start shooting the protesters. The grandmother and Cleo seek refuge in a department store, but the Hawks enter and shoot a protester dead. One of the gunmen aims the gun at Cleo, but when it turns out it’s Fermin, he drops his gun and runs off.
The incident gives Cleo so much stress, she has to go into labor. Teresa rushes Cleo to the hospital in a taxicab, but the chaos of the massacre makes it next-to-impossible to get there. Once there, Antonio reassures Cleo in the delivery room to stay calm but leaves her with Teresa and other doctors. The doctors hear no heartbeat in Cleo’s womb and decide to operate. The baby is born a stillborn girl. None of the attempts to resuscitate the baby succeed.
Cleo tries to carry on her usual work and tries to live life again. One day, Sofia drives a smaller car into the garage, and with ease this time. She says she found a job of her own and she’s able to tend to the children herself. She tells the children that they are going on a brief family vacation to the beaches of Tuxpan as one last trip with the old car. Sofia invites Cleo to come along to help her cope with the loss. As they arrive, the mother tells the truth to her children. Sofia and Antonio are getting a divorce and the purpose of the trip is so Antonio can collect his belongings from the home. Before the trip ends, Cleo looks after the children as they are swimming in the ocean. However Cleo notices the waves are getting dangerously bigger. Cleo, forgetting that she can’t swim, swims out to try to save them. She succeeds in saving them and Sofia and the children are thankful for her selfless act. However Cleo confesses right there that she did not want her child to be born. The mother, the children and Cleo return to the house with less furniture than before but with a new sense of unity between Sofia and Cleo. The film ends as a conversation between Cleo and Adela begins.
The film is unique because it is semi-autobiographical of Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. This film happens from 1970 to 1971: a time when Alfonso was nine to ten. The film Marooned, which was the film in the family movie night scene, was a film Alfonso saw as a child and may have inspired him to become a film maker. The film does give a lot of reminders of what it was like to be a child in a middle-class family in Mexico City. There are posters of Mexico 70, the World Cup Mexico had just hosted, on the walls. There’s the brother making fantasy (American) football saves, which was a time Mexico was just discovering American football.
However Alfonso’s childhood isn’t the central story behind Roma. The story is about two women and their lives around a pivotal turning point in Mexico’s history. Mexico experienced a lot of changes for the better and for the worse during that period of time, but it’s the changes within the women that were noticed most in the film. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman who is one of the two maids, who is the main protagonist. We also have Sofia, the matriarch of the family, as the secondary protagonist. Both have their common female roles at the beginning: Cleo as the maid; Sofia as the housewife. However things change as it becomes obvious the men in their lives are doing them wrong. Antonio leaves Sofia for another woman, and Fermin abandons Cleo upon her pregnancy. The cowardliness of both men are shown in later scene as Fermin is part of the rebel group shooting protesting students and Antonio just simply puts Cleo in the hands of doctors as he leaves her behind. However both women find their strength inside as Sofia learns she can manage things, even motherhood, on her own and Cleo is able to save Sofia’s children in a situation when she thought she couldn’t.
The film is not just about the unity of two women but of unity of two women from different classes. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman possibly from an impoverished background, who is impregnated by her boyfriend and then leaves her. We have Sofia, a Caucasian woman from a more well-to-do background, who is losing her husband slowly but surely. Both appear lost, but they later find an inner strength they never knew they had. It happens as Sofia is able to get a job and own her own car. It happens with Cleo as she saves Sofia’s children and admits her feeling toward her stillborn baby. It’s at the end where Sofia tells Cleo how she will always consider her part of her family that we see the bond of two women coming together. United in their struggles despite their class.
One unique aspect of Roma is its use of metaphors. One is the use of airplanes in the imagery and in the various poignant scenes. Another is the use of the marching band in a couple of key scenes, including the end. Another is how it was right after Cleo saves the children from giant waves that she confesses. Another is how the size of the cars in the garage are symbolic of the marriage and divorce. Another is of various scenes involving movies that tell a lot about relationships. Even the time in which it’s set, from 1970 to 1971, is considered a turning point in Mexico’s history. The marginalized were going either get nastier or protest democratically. The government and their crackdowns would only expose the police or whoever else attacked as cowards. The rich would no longer have their peace and order as the poor would seek to destroy or steal for their own gain. On top of that, women would gain more, They would achieve more freedoms over time and a sense of independence. Mexico would not be the same.
This masterpiece belongs to Alfonso Cuaron. He is the writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor with Adam Gough of this film. The film is a lot like his childhood, as he said it would be, but it’s more. It’s about the two women who find a new sense of freedom in a Mexico that was changing. He creates a masterpiece that’s as telling as Mexico and himself as it is of the characters. The lead acting went to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio and she shines. This may be her first film role ever, but she does an excellent job with her role. Interesting to know in the scene where she swims out to rescue Sofia’s children, she couldn’t swim, just like her character! Also excellent is Marina de Tavira as Sofia. A veteran actress in Mexico, she did an excellent job playing a woman in a troubled marriage who comes out stronger. The child actors who played the chilren were also excellent. I think it was Carlos Peralta as Paco who was intended to be the representation of Cuaron.
The unique thing about Roma is that this is a film most shown on NetFlix. It was screen in theatres beforehand so it does qualify for Oscar eligibility. However with it being on NetFlix, very few theatres have shown it on the big screen and there are no official box office statistics as of yet. The VanCity theatre in Vancouver was the only theatre in Greater Vancouver that screened Roma on the big screen. I had the luxury of seeing it on the big screen just days after Christmas. Those who just see it on NetFlix are missing out on an amazing experience. It is 100 times better seeing it in a movie theatre. However the NetFlix factor is very unique for a film with this many Oscar nominations and a huge chance of winning Best Picture. That NetFlix factor could rewrite the game on how films, especially independent films, are shown.
Roma is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s also a film with a poignant social message as well. However it’s very picturesque to watch and an excellent experience for those lucky to see it on the big screen.
Mexico has delivered a lot of unique films over the years. One such film that has caught festival attention is Güeros which is filmed entirely in black and white. It makes for a unique story and a unique message within the story.
The film begins with Tomas, a young teenager from Veracruz, getting in trouble for tossing a water balloon off the top of his apartment. It lands on a baby. The baby’s fine but the mother’s had it with him and sends him to his student brother in Mexico City. There he meets his brother Federico, nicknamed ‘Sombra,’ who is supposed to be in university but the college is under strike for five months and has become almost threatening territory. Instead he lives in an evaded apartment with his friend Santos. One of the first things Santos notices is how Tomas is unlike his dark-skinned brother. He’s a Guero: a Mexican of light skin and hair. The apartment they live in is without electricity until Aurora, a mentally impaired girl in the suite down below, hands them an orange cord to steal electricity. It’s not easy for Sombra especially since the nights are cold and he has a hard enough time trying to sleep with the images of tigers in his mind because of his panic attacks but he has put up with it since the beginning. Their one getaway is the car but Sombra is too nervous to leave. Possibly because of his panic attacks.
Tomas already finds the first few days frustrating with limited time for electricity and relying on his Walkman to hear the music of Epigmenio Cruz and his camera to take pictures whenever he wants to. Epigmenio Cruz is no ordinary musician to the boys. He was a musician that ‘made Bob Dylan cry’ and almost launched Mexican rock into the mainstream. Then Tomas reads that Epigmenio was admitted to the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver. Tomas wants to meet him but Sombra won’t let him. Tomas then leaves in a fit of anger, especially after three hellish days of living with what Sombra puts up with. To make matters worse, the neighbors down below find out Sombra’s scheme to get electricity and the father chases after them. It’s then that they finally find Tomas who left to find Epigmenio. Sombra’s reluctant to leave the apartment but agrees to do so temporarily. It’s in the trip to the hospital to find Epigmenio that Sombra’s panic attacks come back.
At the hospital, they don’t find him there. They know he’s still alive but information of his whereabouts are kept secret. In the pursuit to find Epigmenio, the three boys first encounter a gang of thugs. Fortunately they leave before they could get into any more trouble. Then they come across a garden of carrots where they can finally have a chance to eat some real food. The next place they head to is the campus but Sombra is hesitant as he knows how dangerous it is. The three are able to make it in there where they’re able to retrieve Sombra’s girlfriend Ana, one of the activist leaders during the strike. Ana shows all the territories of the strike where the students set up their living quarters. Ana soon agrees to go with the boys to find Epigmenio before he dies.
Along the journey, they go to the city zoo and aquarium and Ana is able to help Sombra confront his fear over tigers. They go across the rich area of town and amongst people staring at their smart phones. They also go to the outer part of the city where they encounter store thugs and a boy who drops a brick from a bridge. Yeah, more bad apples in all shapes and sizes. They also come across a woman who was actually a model for the album of Epigmenio’s the boys have. They’re even introduced to his drawings. It’s right after they learn of his restaurant whereabouts of his that they leave town. This leads them to their destination and finally their chance. After the outcome, they return to the campus in the midst of the protest which Ana joins immediately and Sombra approaches without fear and with no panic attack whatsoever.
The thing about the film is that you think it’s going to be about a certain thing but no matter what you thought it would be about, it’s about something else too. And something you didn’t expect it to be about. I first thought it would be about Tomas growing up or learning something about student life at first. I’m sure most of you thought it was about that trip to see Epigmenio. Even though it was about that as far as the plot is concerned, it’s about more. I’ve sensed it’s about Mexico and its art. The boys are immersed in Epigmenio’s music but they also see and hear other art. They hear the poem Ana says as it talks of the struggle of Mexican people and hope coming from it. We hear Mexican music. We see art amongst the student protesters. We see the superficiality of the rich. We see the pettiness and the struggle of the poor from all sides. We’re also given the plot of student protests. A key factor since news has come out about killing and abductions during student protests in Mexico. Then the four meet Epigmenio for the first time and they tell his they realized why his music means so much to Mexicans including their late father and themselves. Interesting that we never know if they got his autograph or not.
Spoiler Alert: For discussion of the theme, the ending will be revealed in this paragraph. I think that what the top point of what the film was. There was the point of the hardships Mexican people have gone through before and now it’s the young’s turn to be fighters for a better tomorrow. But the top point I believe was to take a visual snapshot at Mexican life through all the four experience both on campus and throughout their trip all over Mexico and show what makes the message of hope in Mexican art. Then the film ends with Tomas taking a picture of his brother in the midst of the protest. It’s like his picture is the making of Tomas’ art. Sometimes in looking back I often think that the scene where Tomas and the three others approaching Epigmenio is almost like the ‘passing of the torch’ of Mexican artistry from Epigmenio who’s near death to Tomas who’s young and full of pictures to take.
Interesting that this is Alonso Ruiz Palacios’ first ever feature-length film. He’s done short films and television before but this is his first feature-length and it’s an excellent work. Sebastian Aguirre also did very good as Tomas. He did a very honest portrayal of a young Mexican teen that wasn’t too over the top or showy. Tenoch Huerta and Ilse Salas were both good in their supporting roles. Sometimes you’re tempted to think the film’s about them. A bonus note is that Gael Garcia Bernal is an associate producer of this film. Unique that a story like this can attract a big name like him. The film has already won awards like Best Debut Feature at the Berlin Film Festival as well as Best New Narrative Feature and Cinematography In A Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Fest
Güeros is a unique Mexican film that is worth watching. It’s been said ‘the journey is the destination.’ Such is the case here where the journey is an eye-opener for the four and a message of hope for young Mexicans.
DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know Gravity has been out in theatres for weeks. Even I saw it almost a month ago. But as you can tell from my VIFF writing, I lacked the ambition to write for weeks. It’s only until now I’m getting it back. So I hope you understand. Also I hope you like my review.
Gravity is a movie that promises not to be like your typical outer space movie. The trailer also promised a thrill ride. The question is does it deliver?
The film shows a space shuttle mission commanded by two people: Dr. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski. This is Ryan’s first journey. She receives guidance from Matt: a veteran on his last shuttle trip. It is while they both service the ship’s hubblescope that they learn the Russians did a missile strike on a defunct satellite. It appears to be no big deal until the debris comes straight to their spaceship. The debris detaches Stone, damages the shuttle to the point it’s unusable and leaves the rest of the crew dead. Fortunately Kowalski is able to catch Stone before she flies away into oblivion.
Stone and Kowalski are the only two survivors left. They know they have to make it to the International Space Station (ISS) within 90 minutes to avoid the orbiting space debris. The two talk. Stone admits she hasn’t had a happy life since her young daughter died. They approach the ISS finding many of the Soyuz models inoperable. Kowalski finds one still operable and suggests it be used to travel to a Chinese space station to return back to Earth. However the force of weightlessness becomes too much for the two to travel to the Soyuz together. Kowalski leaves Stone to the Soyuz despite her protests and floats away.
Stone is left on her own in the ISS trying to get to the one safe Soyuz even as there’s a fire in the ship area. Fortunately she finds her way there in time as the debris make a return orbit to commit further damage. Stone tries to communicate with the Chinese ship only to come across audio of a Greenlandic fisherman cooing his baby. Stone turns off her oxygen resigned to giving up. She receives a change of heart from Kowalski where he scolds her and tells her to go on and she receives instructions.
Stone immediately realizes that her conversation with Kowalski was a dream but she develops the will to go on. She directs herself to the Chinese capsule only to learn that it’s been damaged too. She immediately has to find her way to land back to Earth. She has to do it and time is running out. Nevertheless the movie ends as many believe it will but actually not as many originally though the ending would be.
This is one of the best and one of the most unique against-all-odds stories I’ve seen in a long time on the big screen. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know everything was against Ryan. She suffered tragedy in her life and made a loner of herself. She was completely inexperienced in space travel and nothing disastrous was expected to happen. The debris of the satellites leaves the ship damaged and the crew dead. Then Matt Kowalski, her partner in need, floats off into oblivion. She’s left all alone to fend for herself, try and work two damaged spaceships she has no clue how to operate and with broken communication and bring herself back to Earth. Being in the theatre will leave one at the edge of their seat not knowing what will happen next. I myself remember feeling the intensity of the moment during its high-tension scenes. Once you thing something is solved, it turns out that it isn’t and a new decision has to be made.
The best thing about this movie is that it’s not just and outer space thrill-ride. It’s a thrill-ride that’s able to keep its focus on one main actor practically throughout the whole movie and it succeeds in being both entertaining and thrilling. Even having it almost completely in space without ever really focusing outside of it during the space scenes also adds to it being an accomplishment. I remember 127 Hours attempted to focus on one person and their story but there were a few times it shifted away in flashbacks or other scenes. Gravity was better at the focus. It was almost like watching a moment in real-time.
Without a doubt, Sandra Bullock was the performance of the movie. She was the lead role and it was her movie technically from start to finish but she did all the right moves. She succeeded in making her character not just a player in the action but a three-dimensional person with deep feelings. That’s what made the movie more. George Clooney also did well in his supporting role. His role didn’t include the depth or range as Bullock’s but he succeeded with his presence and playing an experienced astronaut who’s cool under pressure.
The big accomplishments go to Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas. Alfonso directed it. Alfonso and Jonas both wrote it. Alfonso also co-produced and co-edited it. They took a story one normally could not create a good box office-winning movie with. Trying to turn a story like that into an eye-catching movie would take a huge amount of effort and may needs the right effects to be added to it to make it work. But they made it work. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the music from Steven Price also added to the excellence of the movie.
Gravity is a sci-fi movie that goes above and beyond what one would expect from a space movie. No big space wars. Just one person and their struggle to stay alive and make it back to Earth. A tough job to turn into a winning picture but it succeeds brilliantly.