It took me a while to get into Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s much-feted black and white quasi-memoir following the life of Cleo, who lives with and works as a housekeeper for a middle-class family in Mexico City. Ironically, what kept me from engaging with the movie for the first half hour is also one of the things that Roma has received most praise for: its cinematography.
Unarguably, Roma is a gorgeous film to look at. I didn’t see it at the cinema, but I wish I had; even on a relatively big TV, it is clear that Cuarón’s latest benefits from a large canvas on which to paint its take on early 1970s Mexico. In part, my unease with the film was due to the fact that we’re conditioned to expect different kinds of stories to look a certain way: a Lord of the Rings film looks different from Trainspotting, Coppola’s The Godfather doesn’t look the same as a Ken Loach kitchen-sink drama. Epic films about larger-than-life heroes and villains look grandiose, while social-realist drama about blue-collar workers tends to look more rough, less designed. It’s an intriguing approach to tell the story that Roma tells in images as grand as the ones Cuarón has shot (the director also acted as cinematographer, as his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki was unable to work within the production’s time constraints), but the film does go against its audience’s visual training.
Going against the grain of convention can be, and in the hands of a skilled artist often is, productive; the tension between the expectations we bring to the material and the connotations of the style can make us see the story we’re being told with different eyes. However, it wasn’t just the conditioning of dozens of years of watching movies that put something of a barrier between me and Roma: more than that, it was that for the first 20-30 minutes, while the film establishes its particular visual language, sometimes it not only privileges the camera over the characters, to me it felt like it subordinates the characters to the needs of the cinematography. There is a scene early in Roma where the camera follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparico) through the house of the family that employs her after they have all gone to bed, cleaning up the various messes they have left behind. The camera pans from one side to the other, reminiscent of a security camera, so in order for Cleo to stay on screen her movements through the house, from this pile of clothes to that thing which needs to be picked up, are neatly choreographed to fit the movement of the camera filming the scene.
This effect – the character’s movements being determined by the camera rather than the other way around – could perhaps be read thematically: Cleo (Roma is dedicated to Cleo’s real-life inspiration, Liboria Rodriguez, who worked as a live-in housemaid for the Cuarón family) may not be a slave, she is treated reasonably well (most of the time) and probably reasonably well paid too in comparison to other jobs available to her, but as a live-in housemaid it is rare that she has a moment where she’s free to do what she wants and be where she wants to be. Her life is determined almost entirely by her employers. Nonetheless, during the film’s first act I couldn’t always shake the impression that its story and its characters weren’t so much emphasised by the visuals but muted by Cuarón’s commitment to a particular stylised, choreographed aesthetic.
Perhaps it took me a while to understand what the director was going for, or perhaps the film itself needed to get into a particular groove, but my initial sense of irritation with the cinematography did give way as I became more immersed in the story Cuarón was telling and, more importantly, the world he was presenting us with. I’ve already mentioned the camera pans: all in all, Roma‘s camera is enamoured with wide horizontal views, whether they are created by slow pans or trucking shots. It’s difficult to shake the impression that Cuarón would have wanted an aspect ratio far wider than the 2.35:1 he ended up using, as many of the most striking shots are moving, panoramic tapestries, of the streets of Mexico City in the day and at night, of a middle-class picnic in the woods, of the countryside in the aftermath of a forest fire.
More than anything, in spite of the classy, glossy black and white footage of these panoramas, Cuarón’s cinematography reminded me of a particular kind of children’s book image – even though they are famous and widespread in the English-speaking world, the word that exists for them exists only in German. Cuarón’s compositions recall the Wimmelbilder that most English speakers would know from the Where’s Wally? (or, if you’re American, Where’s Waldo?) series of books. Much of the time, Wimmelbilder play up the whimsical element: here are three geese chasing three brats down the village street, over there you see five nuns on bicycles, wimples flying, each with a penguin in her bicycle basket. The images I remember from my childhood – from books that would have been created in or just after the decade in which Roma is set – weren’t without whimsy, but at the same time the panoramas they created were often social as much as comical. They’d depict big cities teeming with people; there might be demonstrators picketing for social justice and masked activists toppling over a police car while equally masked, uniformed police take aim at them with a water cannon, or a bunch of late-stage hippies enjoying a day in the park while a family dressed for Sunday service would tut at them from a safe distance.
Cuarón’s panoramas in Roma may not have the cycling nuns, but they definitely use their wide canvases to depict an entire society under pressure. The film gives us a double vision of early ’70s Mexico: at first, we get the panoramas, each of which illustrates facets of society: the police marching in the streets, the oblivious, comfortable middle-class gatherings, the students protesting the government, paramilitary groups joining the fray, families and children caught in the commotion. Then, occasionally, we get scenes where the camera doesn’t move, where we aren’t given a widescreen view but instead focus on Cleo in the middle of everything. There is a tension between the panoramic and the intimate, and I’m not sure the film reconciles them fully, but those few sparse moments where we see Cleo, not as one person among thousands but as the person the film is about are striking in their intimacy.
Some reviewers have described Roma as neorealist, but that description doesn’t really fit. Cuarón’s cinematography is much more hyperrealist, its rich detail doesn’t stem from the immediacy of experience so much as the fill-in-the-blanks inventiveness of memory and storytelling. For a long time, the central character Cleo is almost overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches that surrounds her, but in individual stepping-stone scenes throughout the film we already catch glimpses of the person she is – for instance as she tries hard to keep a straight face when her naked lover gives her a martial-arts demonstration that is no less silly for being competently done (dangling bits rarely make for impressive showmanship) – and it is the accumulation of scenes, both the ones focusing on Cleo as the ones she simply inhabits, that reveals her to be the core the film is built around. At first she may look to us as one of the many, many elements contributing to the panoramic Wimmelbilder of 1970s Mexico; by the end the busy panoramas make up the backdrop to Cuarón’s portrait of a woman.