Director Alfonso Cuarón with Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez
Libo surrounded by Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira and Marco Graf
Director Alfonso Cuarón at Venice
Director Alfonso Cuarón with actress Yalitza Aparicio
Actress Yalitza Aparicio
Director Alfonso Cuarón with actresses Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira
Nancy García García, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira
Mexico USA (135 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Alfonso Cuarón
Winner of the 1st place Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and among the most highly acclaimed films of the year, sitting at the top of many of the best of the year lists, yet underwhelming, this wildly overpraised film is noted for being shot by the director himself using a state-of-the-art 65mm black and white digital camera that is being hailed for its widescreen compositions and sweeping camera movements, yet the digital revolution has nothing on the immaculate look of 35mm film, which was the standard look in the industry prior to the turn of the century, so viewers shouldn’t get too excited, as we’re still not achieving what was considered ordinary in the 1990’s, where this is still a step down from that. Nonetheless this film is receiving industry hype about the quality of the precise look of the film, yet it’s distributed by Netflix, shown in living room televisions while also distributed in a few theaters, where the theater experience is being touted as a better look. This exact same argument was being raised at the director’s previous film, Gravity – 3D (2013), with industry insiders pushing the benefits of watching the film in 3D or at IMAX, all designed to elevate the ticket prices. Why should we not be surprised? A pale comparison to other autobiographical films like Fellini’s I VITELLONI (1953), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), or even the raucous misadventures of teenage youth in George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), the film itself is a memory piece, a Proustian autobiographical journey similar to Manoel de Oliveira’s PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD (2001), with both examining their privileged, aristocratic roots, having been raised by servants, which is an altogether different experience than what most people contend with, as children tend to cling to their caretakers, actually developing a closer relationship to them than their own parents who are seen as more distant and aloof. So really this is a tribute to the indigenous Mixtec servant Cleo from Oaxaca that came to Mexico City to take care of Cuarón as a child, played by Yalitza Aparicio, a nonprofessional who is a primary schoolteacher living in a rural one-roomed home with her family in real life, one of the two housekeepers living on the premises. While this fits the politically correct image that Hollywood is trying to project, promoting stories about women, especially since indigenous history has been overlooked and devalued in cinema, but this fails to get underneath the skin of her character, lacking any real depth and psychological insight, learning little about her, seeming like a lost opportunity, where she’s more of a blank canvas that others project their feelings onto, creating a guilt-heavy depiction that weighs in the viewer’s minds, allowing the film to unravel as a series of incidents or vignettes, like a succession of memories, using a sophisticated sound design that is everpresent. What’s unique is that Cuarón would have been one of the young children, yet the film is seen through the eyes of Cleo, where it’s hard to imagine a child’s memories coinciding with those of a young adult at the time, as identity, class, family background, personal perspective and pertinent details are missing, so it’s more about imagining what it must have been like for the indigenous family maid, making this more of an idealized revisionist history, no doubt suggesting she meant more than she was ever shown at the time.
Told with a detached eye, much of it emotionally inert, the film simply observes while withholding judgment, feeling more like an outsider’s view, as the kids don’t really understand what’s going on with the parents, who are on the verge of splitting up, as much of this is simply beyond their grasp, occurring offscreen, without any dramatic buildup. Set in the early 1970’s, Colonia Roma is the neighborhood in Mexico City where the film takes place, located in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City just west of the city’s historic center. A throwback to the Italian neorealist filmmakers of Rossellini and De Sica, Cuarón was looking for a more naturalistic style, using a technique advocated by British socialist filmmaker Ken Loach, which is withholding a script from cast members until the morning of the shoot, then issuing contradictory instructions to different actors of what to expect so they would elicit genuine surprise on camera. The result is less than stellar acting performances, as all are underdeveloped, none really carrying the picture, though Aparicio as a nanny is immensely appealing as she gently and so easily shows affection for the children, yet throughout she is scolded and belittled, treated like a second class citizen, where her domestic help services are taken for granted. Curiously, the men in the film are nonexistent, and when they make an appearance we discover they are cheaters and pretenders behind the scenes, and moral cowards when it matters. The women, on the other hand, are the backbone of the family, from the nervously anxious mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her feckless husband who is never there, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), both working professionals, to the dependable grandmother Teresa (Verónica García), and the two indigenous housemaids, Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García, who in real life is best friends with Yalitza Aparicio). Add to that four spoiled and bratty young children in their care (the smallest one being Cuarón as a child, played by Marco Graf) who don’t listen and are used to doing pretty much whatever they want without any consequences. The servants daily lives are constantly on display along with morning routines, waking the children up each morning, then tucking them in at night, one by one turning off the lights in each room, seen doing the household chores, like laundry or scrubbing the floors, cleaning the dishes, shopping for groceries, serving meals or attending to guests, while simultaneously taking care of the children as surrogate mothers, where they are always asked to do more than they can possibly do, yet they are continually held to this seemingly impossible standard, after all they’re the hired help living lives of servitude. Sofia angrily loses her patience with them from time to time, but that’s more reflective of her own deteriorating outlook, as she has a good for nothing husband who is completely unreliable. Interestingly, offering a bit of comic relief, the car is meant to reflect the status of the man of the house, and with no man around Sofia is forever doing some serious fender bender damage to that car. Both Cleo and Adela have boyfriends, going on double dates at the movies, where she and her date Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) sneak out into a hotel room where he nakedly shows off his snazzy martial arts moves like sexual foreplay before moving into bed with her.
As it happens, Cleo becomes pregnant, confirmed by a visit to a doctor at the hospital, but when she pays a visit to Fermín to tell him the news, he’s among dozens of others on a soccer field doing synchronized martial artist exercises, as if preparing for the Olympics, getting himself worked up in a lather, furiously rebuking her in no uncertain terms, more like a threat, grotesquely dismissing her as nothing but a servant, of no value to him. As if mirroring that dismissive attitude, the Mexican government has not come to grips with a turbulent era of the 70’s with the Halconazo and the Dirty War (Mexico), refusing to acknowledge this event as part of its own history. While there were no military dictatorships in Mexico like Argentina or Chile, there was an intense period of repression and censorship, with clandestine paramilitary operations that killed with impunity, destroying all records of their actions, so what they did is still not officially recognized. The film includes a scene of a massive student demonstration that was suppressed by the Halconazo, or CIA trained Mexican soldiers dressed in civilian clothing that fired upon the students, chasing them down in stores and hospitals, shooting them dead in cold blood in front of stunned witnesses, one of whom is Cleo, attempting to buy a baby crib at a furniture store with Teresa, shocked to discover Fermín is one of the hired assassins pointing a gun directly at her, which leads to her water breaking. About 120 students were killed in that event as police stood idly by and watched, while at the time the government claimed the attackers were students to discredit their movement. By bringing this event to the world stage, this film may actually force the government to officially recognize what happened. A horrendous traffic jam follows the tragedy, seemingly taking forever to get Cleo to the hospital, where the delivery scene, with all the accompanying chaos from the traumatic events, is one of horror and devastation, like something on the front lines of a war zone, shocking in the blasé manner in which this is depicted, as there’s simply no time to process all that transpires. By the time Cleo returns home, rather than dwell on the unspoken tragedy, Sofia decides to take the kids to the ocean on a road trip to Veracruz, all voting to bring Cleo along, eager to maker her feel like she’s part of the family, though she’s hesitant at first, not knowing how to swim. Sofia’s real purpose is to inform the kids and openly discuss her impending divorce, as Antonio will be removing his things from the home while they’re away. Afterwards, the kids sadly eat ice cream after dinner, downbeat and quiet, with all the joy lifted right out of them, while juxtaposed in the same shot is a party sequence from a festive wedding celebration. By the next day, however, too impatient to wait to check in at a motel, they make a mad dash for the water the moment they set eyes upon it, with the kids, of course, refusing to listen to instructions to stay near the shoreline, plunging headfirst into the waves, with two of them pulled further and further out to sea. Without a moment to think, in the midst of utter ocean turbulence, Cleo simply reacts to the circumstances, herself heading further and further out to sea to find them, fighting the relentless power of the waves, summoning every last reservoir of strength to rescue them both, all crumpled on the beach afterwards, like a human sculpture of collective relief. By the time they get home, with all the books and bookcases gone, there’s suddenly more room that wasn’t there before, and surprisingly the kids all have different rooms, so it’s like a new frontier awaits them, where the final held shot is a real knockout. The film is dedicated to Libo, the real life Cleo, whose name is Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who is still very much alive. Remembering the young Cuarón, she says simply, “He just didn’t behave.”