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Academy Winner Alfonso Cuaron's highly anticipated film
A few days before this media screening, I went to see Colette (starring Keira Knightley). It was chosen to open the Palace Cinemas British Film Festival. It was a fine period film bringing to life the colourful characters and intellectual milieu of Paris during the 19th century. The audience was in raptures and the film met with thunderous applause.
Attending the preview media screening of Roma by Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (that will screen at the opening night of Cine Latino- Palace Cinema's Festival on November 13) was an entirely different experience.
There was no clapping. Instead, the audience seemed stunned.
In retrospect, I don't think this silence was because they didn't enjoy Cuarón's highly-rated film. After all, when Roma premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on 30 August 2018, it won the Golden Lion and was selected as the Mexican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.
Rather, I think the silence was because we all felt somewhat shell-shocked.
The story depicts Cuarón's childhood of growing up in Mexico City with his upper-class parents in the 1970s. He went so far as to use the furniture his family had once owned for the sets. And while not his family completely, the characters are still versions of them and the young maid/servant who helped raise him and his siblings.
As Cuarón said in an interview: "Cleo [is] based on my babysitter when I was young. We were a family together. But when you grow with someone you love you don't discuss their identity, so for this film I forced myself to see as this woman, a member of the lower classes, from the indigenous population ...This gave me a point of view I had never had before."
From the memorable silent opening, where soapy water is thrown and swilled onto concrete paving, we see the family's daily life and Mexico City through the eyes of this domestic servant Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
You need to follow the opening sequence closely as while seemingly simplistic, it is symbolic foretelling much of what is to come. Cleo is washing off deposits of dog crap excreted by the family's pet whose life is contained in a concrete prison that also serves as a covered way for the father's car.
It's a tight squeeze as he edges his car in each night. The dog must be held back and contained in even less space. And the parking feat is watched closely by his adoring family, while Cleo holds back the mutt.
The cramped space reflects Cleo's own life. She is adored by the children in the family and supported by the wife when Cleo finds she is pregnant, but she is still trapped by her circumstances and ultimately, she is always the one who is left to clean up the messes that unfold.
The wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is in turmoil as her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is having an affair and after the family sees him off one day on a supposed business trip, she waits in limbo. Will he return or even send her money from his wages as a doctor, so she can keep the large household going.
She hides the painful reality of the situation from the children and life goes on.
Mostly, we watch Cleo work turning down beds, washing dishes, checking the right lights are on at night-time. But in one scene, we see her on a date at the cinema. She whispers to her lover (Fermin Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that her period is late. He says fine and then tells her he is just going to the toilet, even leaving his jacket with her. It's a ploy - he never returns.
In an astonishing sequence, we see Cleo track him down. She finds him at his martial arts training with a veritable sea of other young men. He is relying on his skills at martial arts to help him rise out of the slums. But sadly, one suspects all these young men are.
When she sidles up to him, he turns on her. But one must take one's sombrero off to Cuarón, as instead of creating character types he simply uses his camera to show us the surrounding shanty area. From this scene alone, we recognise that Cleo by virtue of her association with a middle-class family has far more chances in life than this young man. He is little more than a pitiable thug and made heartless by his surroundings.
Cleo's pregnancy is one of the main threads in the story but the plot is episodic rather than a cohesive narrative. The audience needs to continue to watch the frames intently as Cuarón is a master of visual language and only through attempting to decipher the carefully crafted images does one gain the most meaning from this film.
As an example, Cleo is shown running gaily along the streets and is narrowly missed by a car. Unscathed, she runs off to her date but you recognise the portent. You know something more earth-shattering than even an accident or one of Mexico's earthquakes is coming for her.
So you tend to be on the edge of your seat whenever Cleo is anywhere near a car, walking up steep stairs or near water, especially given the film's opening sequence.
The movie builds to a number of climactic points that are well worth shuffling in your seat and waiting for. One expects that the culmination will be the demonstration in Mexico City on June 10, 1971, where the death toll reached 120 but instead, that historic happening is just event amongst a multitude of others that swamp this young woman.
Cuarón had the opportunity to be incredibly inventive when creating Roma because after his Academy Award-winning film Gravity and Academy Awards nominated Children of Men and blockbusters such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Netflix gave him free rein.
Instead of a static script, Cuaron developed the film visually from his own memories, recalling events and scenes. He then cross-examined these for their hidden meanings whilst planting visual clues for us to follow.
He was in total charge so that he was not only the director but also the writer, cinematographer and editor. And if this film looks beautiful, it is because every shot is a tableau based on principles of design.
He chose to use little-known actors and decided against a background film score, except for the soundtrack of Mexico City with its barking dogs, honking cars and frenetic street life.
He chose to shoot the film in spartan with atmospheric black and white cementing visual images that will stay with you for weeks.
A screening of Cuarón's Roma will open the Palace Cinemas Latino Film Festival on Tuesday, November 13. The film will screen in 4k.
An immersive experience including food Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt