The 1970s-set Roma heads into the awards-season homestretch up for 10 Oscars, tying Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the most for a non-English-language film. Since it won the Golden Lion at Venice, Alfonso Cuarón’s ravishing black-and-white drama was enough of a game-changer that it got Netflix to change its model and open the film first in theaters before it began playing on its global streaming service. Cuarón has been in the awards mix before for his audacious films — he won Best Director and Best Editor for Gravity and was nominated for both Children of Men and Y tu mama tambien — and this time he’s up for four awards. Who better to unravel the magic of Roma than his fellow countryman Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water took Best Picture and Best Director honors last Oscars. Del Toro broke down his pal’s genius in a series of tweets. Here they are.
1) The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined—momentarily—and revealed, by water (the reflection). All truths in Roma are revealed by water.
2) These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household, cannot be broached. The moments the family comes “closer” are fleeting… “She saved our lives,” is promptly followed by “Can you make me a banana shake?”
3) In my view, Cleo’s “silence” is used as a tool for her dramatic arc—that leads to her most intimate pain being revealed, by water—again—after the ocean rescue: “I didn’t want her to be born,” Cleo surpasses and holds her emotions in silence until they finally pour out.
4) One key moment, precisely crafted, is Cuarón’s choice to have Cleo’s water break just as the violence explodes and her boyfriend breaks into the store holding both a gun and a “Love Is…” t-shirt. The baby will be stillborn.
5) In every sense, Roma is a Fresco, a Mural, not a portrait. Not only the way it is lensed but the way it “scrolls” with long lateral dollies. The audiovisual information (context, social unrest, factions & politics, morals of the time) exists within the frame to be read.
6) It seems to me that the fact that Cuarón and Eugenio Caballero BUILT several blocks (!) of Mexico City in a giant backlot (sidewalk, lampposts, stores, asphalted streets, etc.) is not well-known. This is a titanic achievement.
7) The class strata are represented in the film not only in the family but within the family and the land-owning relatives and even between Fermin and Cleo—when he insults her in the practice field.
8) Roma cyphers much of its filmic storytelling through image and sound. When viewed in a theatre, it has one of the most dynamic surround mixes. Subtle but precise.
9) Everything is cyclical. That’s why Pepe remembers past lives in which he has belonged to different classes, different professions. Things come and go—life, solidarity, love. In our loneliness, we can only embrace oh, so briefly by the sea.
10) The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening. Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both. Like she demonstrates in the Zovek scene, only she has grace. We open the film looking down, we close looking up—but the sky, the plane, is always far away.
Cuarón often uses the Ocean in a metaphorical way: Children of Men, Roma, Y Tu Mamá También, etc.
And the great ending of Gravity… The studio was pressuring Alfonso to “show” helicopters in the sky, coming to rescue Sandra Bullock’s character. He said “no.” Emerging from the water was the triumph, touching the earth—standing…
The studio then said: “Ok what about hearing the helicopters?” Alfonso, once more, said “no.” The studio then suggested adding a radio giving her coordinates, promising help. Alfonso said “no.” Once more an ending made of Air, land and water.