As the 91st Academy Awards revealed its winners, Roma, a black and white artistic film based in Mexico City in 1970, won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. To me, Roma’s success was well deserved.
The beginning scene of Roma immediately set the pace of the film. It was a long close-up shot of a stone-paved driveway with soapy water gradually coming into our vision to rinse the driveway. Then we saw the protagonist of the film, Cleo, standing at the end of driveway, performing her daily cleaning task. After that, we followed her through the daily housekeeping routine via mainly still camera positions, as if we were invisible observers standing in the house. Cleo was also not visible all the time; she walked in and out of the frame, casually living her life. This technique created suspense for the audience. I found myself imagining what she was doing outside the frame and agitatedly anticipated her to come back on screen. This style of cinematography allowed the audiences to come closer to the Cleo and quickly connect with her.
Another particularly skillful and artistic scene happened after Cleo broke the news of her pregnancy to her boyfriend in a movie theater. The camera was positioned a few rows behind their seats, so as the audiences witnessed the unfolding of their story, we felt as if we were in the cinema with Cleo. Upon hearing her pregnancy, Cleo’s boyfriend excused himself to go the bathroom although their movie was ending soon. So, we waited with Cleo. As Cleo waits, she keeps on gazing back to the direction of the camera. In the half-lit setting, her eyes of anticipation and inquiry almost seemed to be directly looking at us, seeking for an answer. I felt a strong urge of wanting to crawl through the screen and through the few rows that separated us to hug her. Only when I was reading the reviews afterward did I realized that this single-shot and almost silent scene lasted for several minutes. But in the theater, I felt those minutes fly by, and it was packed with emotion. In those few minutes, each one of the audience members got a chance to reflect on their own stories and project them onto the movie. Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary cinematography and use of silence allowed a truly interactive experience that fully immersed us into Cleo’s life.
Besides these breathtaking scenes that provoked everyone’s deepest emotional responses, Roma also accurately captured the relationship dynamic between Cleo and the family she served with all its intricacy, intimacy, balance, and imbalance. When Cleo’s water broke, the grandmother of the family pushed the limit of her old, deteriorated body to get Cleo to the nearest hospital. But she also cried with shivering guilt when she couldn’t answer even the most basic information of Cleo and could only manage to state their formal relationship, saying “I’m her employer.” When Mr. Gutierrez abandoned the family, Cleo and Mrs. Gutierrez held each other up through difficulties and safeguarded the kids from the harsh reality of the world. The complex relationship between these two women, made me almost certain that Roma’s screenwriter had to be a woman. But I realized that this was masterful writing by Cuarón.
Cuarón noted that this was his most personal film, telling the public that “ninety percent of the scenes that you see in the film come out of my memory.” Later when asked if the real-life Cleo had seen the film, he said, “Yes, [she did]. She just cried. She kept on saying, ‘It was like this. It was like this.’” In Cuarón’s Oscars speech, he advised and reminded fellow artists around the world: “As artists our job is to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times when we are being encouraged to look away.” Even without knowing all the remarkable details of Roma, I believe Cuarón’s reminder was already a sufficient reason for anyone to watch his masterpiece.