In Search Of Lost Time In Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma
As time moves forward we find ourselves attempting to recover its fragments. In the earliest youth time can lose its very meaning, but as the years accumulate we then look back, as if trying to find photographs in a vast galaxy of memories. Alfonso Cuaron wants to use the very essence of cinema to recover the past in Roma. His first feature film for Netflix is also one of the year’s best- a haunted, detailed, personal rendering of his memories growing up in 1970s Mexico. A serene rush of recollections, sights, sounds and sensations, it is a thriving example of the artist attempting ever so thoroughly to render for us what he experienced as a child. In its grander scope it is a tapestry of a society in a specific moment of time, at a more intimate level it conjures that sensation we feel when attempting to remember how the air smelled during a trip to the desert, how the night glowed when we were lost in the woods, or what her eyes looked like when you found her weeping on the balcony.
Roma is a work of cinema in the tradition of the Italian neo-realists in the way it abandons traditional plotting to chronicle life itself within the confines of a city, neighborhood or home. Cuaron has been building towards this moment his entire career, refining a technique honed in films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Gravity, all films with different themes but combining a dreamlike sense with stark realism. But there is a literary germ in Roma, a kinship with a tradition most readily associated with that French master of memory, Marcel Proust. When moving from Mexico to the United States, Cuaron himself first debuted in the English-language market with two literary adaptations, A Little Princess, based on a 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Great Expectations, a modern-day update of the Charles Dickens novel. There is already a somewhat Proustian spirit to the latter title, where Cuaron and his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, seem bent on capturing the very essence of what a kiss feels like, or the tension of making a heartfelt confession. But Roma is mining something much more personal and searing. Like Proust, we can imagine Cuaron lost in a haze of his mind’s memory palace, searching for moments the way one searches for books in a library.
We are taken into a middle class home in Mexico City. It is the 1970s during the administration of Luis Echeverria, one of the final strongmen of the infamous PRI party which ruled the country from the end of the Mexican Revolution until the year 2000. But the film’s gaze is from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the serene maid of home’s family. The de facto head of the house is Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who is raising a family of three rowdy boys and one girl. Her husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a doctor who drives home at night in a wide Ford Galaxy almost too big for the house’s garage. He also has a tendency of disappearing for days- to conferences Sofia insists to the kids. It is obvious the marriage is beginning to crack. As life attempts to carry on at a normal pace, Cleo is living her own dual existence. She hails from the poorer, indigenous sector of Mexican society, speaking in her indigenous language to Adela (Nancy García García), the other maid. But as Antonio is gone more and more, the world of this home will slowly begin to alter and painful truths will have to be shared. When Cleo meets a brash, young guy named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), she soon finds her own life irrevocably changed as well.
Every life is in itself a story. Marcel Proust, product of the French bourgeoisie society of the 19thcentury, was a keen observer of all- both the way his world operated and the way jealousy stings or unrequited love causes despair. His monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time, composed of seven volumes, is the defining literary work of memory itself. Proust had an uncanny ability of utilizing language to describe the sensuousness of remembrance, from the sound of a distant train, to the shadows cast by a light in his room as a child, to the memories the taste of a specific drink or meal may evoke. Jean Cocteau in an essay on Proust described the author as having “obeyed the laws of night and honey.” Walter Benjamin would write that, “from the honeycombs of memory he built a house for the swarm of his thoughts.” Simply open the first volume of Proust’s opus, Swann’s Way, and we are swept into a world of pure observation. The first chapter is a description of the narrator falling asleep, quite literally, and the very texture of the darkness around the bed. Later in the novel, this is how Proust describes the glance of a crush, “I can still see, above her silky, swelling mauve tie, the gentle surprise in her eyes…That smile fell on me, who had not taken my eyes off her. Recalling, then, the gaze she had rested on me during the Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad’s window.” Acts become patches of artwork, motions the equivalent of notes in a song. One section of the novel is famous for initiating a whole passage of memory simply from the taste of a madeleine. This is also how Cuaron has also envisioned Roma — following a Proustian road, one might say, into the corridors of his own lifetime. While not an aristocrat like Proust, Cuaron is himself a product of the Mexican middle class, having been raised in the comfortable sectors of Mexico City as opposed to the slums from where his main character comes from. The film is a tribute of sorts to the maid who helped raise him, much as Proust also renders homage to the maids of his own upbringing. But like In Search of Lost Time, Cuaron’s film is observant of the very class layers of his world, and in a Latin American context he also explores the fissures that can transform into eruptions.
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