To the daddy who never came back


MY nanny and me: Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her youngest charge Pepe (Marco Graf) and a soft boiled egg for breakfast. Photograph courtesy The New Yorker

FILMS COME AND go. What is it that gives one life beyond a single viewing? When you watch Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishingly fine autobiographical film, Roma, for the first time, this thought may cross your mind. Twenty years down the line, you may still be holding on to some of the carefully made stills in this beautiful Spanish-language sub-titled film.

Indeed, it is not for the story line or the context of the work that you will be seduced and consider this work a work of greatness. It is for the unfashionable technology – the whole film is in black and white – and the impeccable understanding of period. It is for the internal rhythms, the balance and structure of the work and it is for the astonishing performances of the children in the cast which lend the piece an irrevocable sense of the documentary: the rough and tumble, the Tiddlywinks and jousting for the front seat of the car are handled with jagged edges that you will know, if ever you were a child with siblings. The autobiographical essence of the work is cast with earnestness and great wisdoms amid vulnerability in the youngest child ‘Pepe’ played by Marco Graf.

Focused on the district of Roma in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City in the early 1970s, this is a tale about madams and maids. Contrary to what the title may imply, it is not about the community of people known as ‘gypsies’. It is about young men who abscond from the bosom of family and it is about earthquakes in a time of conception, and riots in a time of birth. Above all, it’s about skin colour and class systems that enable a young woman to wash your smalls and bath your children but for you to not even know where she comes from or how old she is. And it is about how language can casually enfold comments of exclusion and bigotry in common parlance.

Roma lends focus on rich and poor, loss and gain, shards of magic realism, a child remembering a life he lived before this one, and a dance routine for young men of the community, mesh together to form a strong, feminist-scented period piece. It is endemically Mexican but deeply universal, and the challenges that the maid in question, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) faces resonates with those of everywoman, and her gentle and unsensational performance evokes that of Jill Levenberg in the recent film Ellen. Here is a woman who is subject to the miseries of servitude because of nothing more than her caste. She’s luckier than most, unluckier than some and she handles it all, with as much dignity as she can muster.

As you watch the film, you are blessed with a sense of great privilege. Every single still in this work bears remembering. The contrasts and the context is melded with content in a way that dispossesses you of the idea that this is an easily dismissable bit of entertainment. It’s arguably one of the classics of our time.

  • Roma is directed by Alfonso Cuarón and features a cast headed by Yalitza Aparicio, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Diego Cortina Autrey, Andy Cortés, Marina de Tavira, Daniela Demesa, Nicolás Peréz Taylor Félix, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, José Luis López Gómez, Marco Graf, Fernando Grediaga, Clementina Guadarrama, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Kjartari Halvorsen, Enoc Leaño, Latin Lover, José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Carlos Peralta and Edwin Mendoza Ramirez. Featuring a screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, it is produced by Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón and Gabriela Rodriguez and features creative input by Alfonso Cuarón (cinematography), Alfonso Cuarón and Adam Gough (editing), Luis Rosales (casting), Eugenio Caballero (production design) and Anna Terrazas (costumes). Release date in South Africa by Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: December 14 2018.

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