After watching ‘Roma,’ Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, recently, I left the theater a bit disoriented, as often happens when a movie so overwhelms you. With all my soul I wanted to go back into the theater and be carried away again.
I must offer Cuarón my gratitude for having recaptured my childhood in Mexico City, which I thought was lost forever. Yet there it was on the screen: the Choco Milk I used to drink; Gansitos snack cakes in the fridge; the Scalextric raceway I played with; my father’s white Valiant, and the black Galaxy my friend Benjamin’s mother used to drive. There were vinyl records, and the competitions held on La Pantera radio between the Beatles and the latest up-and-coming band. There was El Loco Valdez’s comic show, the joy of hailstorms; the city where I grew up.
The movie is full of exquisite detail. I can imagine what the set designers must have gone through to find all the right TV sets, radios, posters and costumes needed to recreate the scenes from Cuarón’s prodigious memory. I read in an interview that 90 percent of the film is based on Cuarón’s recollections, which is evident.
The result — the black-and-white film was shot by the director himself, on 65 millimeter film for better resolution — is comparable to dreams I’ve had in which I roam my childhood home. In these dreams, I move without haste. There’s time, for example, to watch the water drain after the patio has been washed down, as is depicted in the film. (Cuarón’s frequent collaborator, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, was slated to be the director of photography for ‘Roma,’ but had to leave the project just before it began filming.)
The movie is set between 1970 and 1971. During the first year Mexico hosts the World Cup, and in the second we experience the Corpus Christi massacre, in which more than 100 student demonstrators were killed by the “Halcones,” a group of elite soldiers trained under President Luis Echeverría Alvarez’s administration.
During these years, when I was 12 and 13 years old, my world revolved around soccer. But the film accurately depicts the world outside as well, particularly the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s authoritarian tactics and bloody repression. It almost serves to remind us why, decades later, so many Mexicans voted for a change, and against that party.
What is most surprising and revolutionary about the film, however, is that in depicting a Mexican society that can be quite classist, racist and misogynistic, the main character is an indigenous woman, Cleo. She is a maid, one of two women who work for a middle class family in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood. Cleo provides the emotional and fundamental bonds that hold the family together as she looks after the children and keeps the house running smoothly.
The film celebrates women. A real-time scene in which Cleo gives birth is so lifelike your hands might begin to sweat. The children’s mother, who after a night out finally acknowledges that her husband is not coming back, tells Cleo a slashing truth: Remember that we women will always be alone.
I’m sure Cuarón is present in all the characters of this film. And despite being a mere audience member, I was there, too: in the eldest son trying to rule over his siblings; in the teenager who almost drowns in the ocean because he wants to prove he is a man. Images from the film mixed with my own memories. When ‘Roma’ is available on Netflix in mid-December, I will watch it again, alone in my home. I’m afraid that I will laugh and cry throughout.
I tried for many years to recover my childhood in Mexico, collecting as many details as possible. Those of us who leave tend to lose the details. And while I have written about childhood many times, I have never been able to convey my own memories in vivid images and recalled moments. When I watched ‘Roma,’ I thought to myself: “This is it.”
Who says you can’t recapture the past?