Cuaron’s poem of promise and loss flows like a parade across the silver screen, or the calm surge of water that Cleo uses to mop the family driveway, growing deeper with each wave until it reflects an airplane flying overhead; dreaming of some far off place, some distant imagination during routine chore. The first layer shows us one portrait, the more layers, the deeper, until that glimmer of a self we never knew was there; a life we dream to live, someone we dream to be, or someone we were when we were old, before we were born. It flows like the violent waters of the ocean that threaten to swallow Sofi, chaos and imbalance, as in the minds of men for whom discipline can become the only respite. Above all, Roma believes in the ties that bind women together in this world, and the ties that bind them to their children. There exists a life beyond our own, “out there”, and in counterbalance there exists the here and now; the present circumstance, the present responsibility. For the women of Cuaron’s film, here, now and responsibility not only make up their existence, it is their only choice. It is his restless males who seem frightened, who seem angry, drawn away by the world outside, some nagging feeling or preoccupation, unable to embrace their families, their homes. The men of Roma are only able to chase what is out there; life, love and violent revolution, rather than nurture. It is more seductive to chase political causes and escape with a mistress. In Roma, our men even seem to marry in pursuit of the challenge of marriage itself, a promise which may see its permanence shattered down the road. Always in the back of our mind Cuaron plants the image of the airplane flying overhead, a constant reminder that out there, somewhere, there are others on their way to great adventure while we quietly sweep up the dog shit on the driveway.
Two visual cues frequently appear in lieu of the father’s presence: the behemoth car (and the struggle to pull it into the driveway), and the mounds of dog shit that collect there; the former being a burden on the family without the father to drive it around and park it, the latter being a bad reaction toward the shit that permeate everyone’s reaction henceforth. While Daddy is a car and a lingering smell of cigarette smoke, Mommy has her episodes and only Cleo is present in each moment, though not allowed into the intimate ones. Cuaron barely uses a closeup, his action spread wide across a 65mm frame, only revealing the characters’ features by having them come to us, not the other way around. At a New Years celebration, through the weight of dilemma in the personal lives of Cleo and the family, they pause for the holiday’s reflection and warmth. When a fire breaks out in the woods behind the house, all must put the holiday on pause to deal with the here and now, the blaze that threatens them from without. In the midst of the rescue mission, the man, costumed as a monster, approaches our stationary camera as we’ve grown accustomed to. He is the only participant still attached to the world at large, still in tune with the ticking of the clock, still counting down the seconds until midnight, whereas the rest are firmly determined to quench the flames. He sings to us, seemingly so aware of what is outside of the scenario that he can sense the audience on the other side of the lens. These transcendent moments are infrequent, but weighty in Cuaron’s tapestry. By contrast, Cleo seeks out the father of her unborn child. She stands by a large group of martial artists waiting for him, as all are caught up in the teachings of a master from a far off land come to town. Only she and the master contain the balance to perform his feat, though she goes unnoticed. When she tries to approach him, he rebukes her. Little does he know that she contains within her the same spiritual balance as the man he calls master, little does she know that to reunite with him may be the key to a strong and healthy pregnancy and birth. As his final act in her life, he may deliver the final surge of fear that takes the baby, we cannot be sure. He is drawn away, as all men in Roma, toward a cause, toward an ideal, an imagination of a life better served. Life with Cleo is an abomination of mundane normalcy, the home and all it represents makes him sick. Boys dream of space travel, the image fills the silver screens within the screen, pilots and astronauts, firing from cannons in their pursuit toward the world beyond. What we’re left with is the depth of Cuaron’s images, the tableaux of his frame, the life all around our characters, not part of their story, but visible for an instant, the world makes its presence known.
Perhaps Cuaron’s film truly deals with the depths of responsibility and desire; where they overlap, where they oppose one another, and where those who feel them are willing to go to achieve their ultimate expressions. We find ourselves in the ultimate collision between the two during Cleo’s admission in the film’s climactic sequence on the beach. Her desires outweighed her sense of obligation, though she cannot outrun what she is inside, because we know that she feels responsible for the fate of her child, even now. Cuaron’s emotional apex is strengthened and bolstered as she acts to ensure she won’t lose Sofi, yes Cuaron makes us aware that she cannot swim. It is to Cuaron’s credit and humanity as a filmmaker that he never uses these elements overtly in the scene, they are present in the back of our mind, as are all things we see and hear in the world of the film, but never are they called to our attention, the moment is allowed to play naturally and freely toward its necessary conclusion. With Roma, Cuaron has constructed a tone poem, an epic narrative and a personal story all in one. As we see deeper into Cleo’s soul, so does our scope widen to include all the strife and suffering, the elations and joys of those around her in a way that we are only acutely aware as the scenes progress. Cuaron has crafted one of the finest films of his career, one that forgoes spectacle to bring us humanity and which does not crowd our senses, that we may look toward the sky and see.