Thursday, February 14, 2019


Roma. [Mild spoilers.] When I was a young man I went with this girlfriend to visit her parents in Miami. As she, like most of my girlfriends, came from considerably more money than I did, the parents had a swell place, and a maid greeted the girlfriend at the door -- very effusively and even emotionally, I thought, considering she was after all a maid, though also with some reserve (like the hugs, though there were a lot of them and they were obviously heartfelt, never lasted very long) that made it seem even weirder. After the woman went back to her work, the girlfriend said, "That's [name of maid] -- she sort of raised me."

That played on my mind when I saw Roma, which as you may know is about a live-in servant to a middle-class family in the eponymous district in Mexico City in the early 70s. The servant, Cleo, young and modest and indígena, seems to be more or less the housekeeper; there's another girl who seems to be the cook, but they help each other in their jobs. In addition to housework, Cleo spends a lot of time with the children, one of whom, fair-haired and sensitive and given to tales of his past lives, I at first took to be her son, she seemed to understand him and love him so well, though she seemed too young to have had him. When I realized he was instead one of the family, and that he was probably the avatar of the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón,  I cried, and not for the last time. In fact I haven't cried for a movie as much since Moonlight, so there's a lachrymal vote in the Oscar sweepstakes.

Even before I made that connection, I could see it was a memory movie even if I hadn't heard in advance that it was -- so often details are jacked up in the way a child would perceive and then remember them in adulthood: The overdriven sound of 60s cars, the multilayered din of city streets, the chaos and clatter of hawkers flashing and bouncing their wares outside the movie palace, the paneling and fluorescent lights of the mueblería. Even in scenes the child Cuarón could not have witnessed, the look and feel asserts itself, as if to insist on its importance, even over the story -- which I confess sometimes made me impatient, because it reminded me more of the sort of film installations one sees in museums than a movie.

But things do happen. Cleo takes up with Fermin, a friend of a cousin who turns out to be no good, a hitter in the Los Halcones paramilitary, who gets her pregnant and abandons her. (His abandonment and later renunciation of her are among the more protracted scenes, and thinking about it now I guess maybe I felt impatient with them because they're so painful.) The family meanwhile is disrupted; the father fucks off with a mistress, and his wife and her mother can at first think of nothing better than to deceive the kids and pretend he's just away on business. The twin sorrows of Cleo and her employer run on tracks that are sometimes parallel and even come very close, but there's always, as there was with my girlfriend's parents' maid, a line that no one is going to cross. But the maid and the family get through -- one would say together, but not quite, except in the blessed memory of a boy who grew up to make a movie where she was, at last, the center of attention, and at the close ascends into the endless memory of art.

There is so much that's virtuosic in this movie, and it's mostly Cuarón, who directed, wrote, shot and edited it (and I bet he had a lot to say about the sets); I especially love the long dolly shots, from the servants' giddy race down a Mexico City street to the genuinely how-the-hell amazing ocean rescue, but every scene is a jewel of rhythm, blocking, and dramatic emphasis, including the revelation scene at the seaside restaurant where the mother is the focus but there's a little boy who can't stop crying. All the acting is choice but Yalitza Aparicio's Cleo is the sort of thing that might have made Bresson think, maybe it's okay if the actors try a little. Her performance is more perfectly on the cusp of acting and not-acting than any other I've seen, and I've seen Joseph Chaikin. If you don't like the movie, you'll at least like a lot of the things that you see and hear in it.

(Kind of hate to disturb the reverie, but if you want to know everything that's wrong with "conservative" "arts criticism," you might check out Ross Douthat's studiously inept review of the film. The crux of it is, liberals r hypocrites because they like a movie where the maid is exploited, what if it was Berkeley huh libs. And wait till you hear his more specific criticisms; get this -- "The choice to film in black and white feels a wee bit pretentious, depriving the viewer of the rich colors that many of the street scenes imply" -- similarly, why were In Cold Blood, Psycho, and Dr. Strangelove in black and white, they had color then, I don't get it -- aaaargh fuck this guy; how perfect that this alleged follower of Christ should be such a perfect philistine.)

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