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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Roma

Roma

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio; left) is the maid to the changing household of Sofia (Marina de Tavira; right) in Roma.

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.