The opening sequence of “Roma” is so simple, but effective. This is a celebration of black and white photography, of light and movement. We can be mesmerized by a simple rectangle of light and the gentle motion of water, the suggestion of windows and cleansing.
Yet what follows is not so simple. The world of women that we see has dogs and dirt, service and sadness. A close-up of a cigarette and it’s smoke is more important than the face of the driver. The reflections off of a car as the male driver repeatedly attempts to park and the little mishaps such as a closeup of the car tire squashing the dog feces during the ritual of putting the car into a space where it will barely fit before the car rests, introduce us to the driver. Yet we’re not really interested in him and his feelings; the focus is on the women.
Here there is also some black and white. The lady of the household, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the wife of the doctor who was driving the car, is light-skinned with blondish hair. Her doctor husband, Antonio, is also light-skinned. Their maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy García), have dark skin and long straight black hair, parted in the center and hanging down their backs.
There a sense of class, but also of things not quite fitting together. Cleo and Adela have boyfriends: Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero)and Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza), both also dark-skinned with dark hair. What begins as a double date, ends with Adela and Ramón seeing a movie and Cleo and Fermín renting a room. We don’t see their carnal embrace, but do see Fermín celebrating his sexual encounter by using a curtain rod as a pole as he practices martial arts moves. When Cleo and Adela go on another double date with Fermín and Ramón, Cleo confesses to Fermín that she might be pregnant. He seems supportive, but during the movie, he excuses himself to go to the restroom, but doesn’t return.
Cleo is indeed pregnant and Sofia helps her by taking her to the hospital where her husband Antonio works. Antonio is supposed to be in Canada, but he’s actually left his wife and children and there’s another woman.
The movie seems to be about the unrest of the lower class male while the women reach out across the class boundaries to support one another, but there is more layered inflections that are lost in translation. On Twitter someone noted there are references even in the names.
Written and directed by Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. There are a number of Spanish-speaking members of the Hollywood Foreign Press and they doubtlessly get the references to Mexican and Spanish-language culture that others, like myself, do not.
For photographers, cinematographers and aspiring filmmakers, this is a must-see if only because Cuarón as a cinematographer gives a shining example of how simplicity can be mesmerizing (e.g. the opening sequence). If you love black and white photography, this movie is a celebration of that with some cultural commentary on the side. In Spanish with English subtitles.