Great directors have trademarks. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos, or David Lynch’s red curtains and ambient noise. Over the last 20 years, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has made the long take his personal trademark. This is a single shot that lasts for an especially long time, taking in the whole mise-en-scène at once, rather than cutting from character to character. It’s an old-fashioned approach. In the early days of cinema, when the medium was regarded as essentially theatre, most takes were long, treating the characters and set like they were on a stage, standing back and letting them act. As cinematography grew more sophisticated, so did the filming and editing techniques we take for granted. So why does Cuarón return to the long take so frequently, whether he’s making a tragicomedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien) or blockbuster kids movie (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)? Is he just showing off, or is there something deeper going on?
Let’s look at one of them to find out. Harry Potter features a scene early on where Harry and his friends are in a wizard café, discussing the escaped fugitive Sirius Black. The camera follows Harry as he paces, swinging around pillars and pivoting past tables. Look in the background and you’ll notice something: wanted posters, showing Black. And since these are magical posters, they’re animated, Black turning back and forth, his face in pain. The threat Harry’s discussing is literally watching over him. A bridge is built between the background and foreground, letting the viewer make connections that the characters might miss. Sometimes the long take conveys a more serious point, as in Children of Men. In this dystopian story about a world where women can no longer become pregnant, the camera consistently pans away from the protagonist to show us crowds of refugees getting rounded up by an authoritarian government. There is more going on in the world than just what the hero is doing, the long take seems to say.
Cuarón’s new film, Roma, does employ long takes, though not as long as Children of Men or Gravity. It’s less show-offy than those stylized genre films, being a deeply personal story based on Cuarón’s own childhood. It takes place in Mexico City in the early 1970s, following an upper-middle-class family whose father is a doctor at the local hospital. But this isn’t a coming-of-age story where Cuarón depicts himself at a young age. The protagonist of the film (she’s in virtually in every scene, either in the center of the frame, or somewhere on the periphery) is Cleo, the family’s housekeeper. The travails of a family in crisis are filtered through this young woman who lives in a guest room in the backyard.
|ROMA Directed by Alfonso Cuarón Participant Media Distributed by Netflix, 2018.|
This feels like the logical conclusion of Cuarón’s whole approach. Throughout his career, filming all those long shots, he has tried to find new ways to bridge the background and the foreground, getting the viewer to look past the main action of the story to see what other, seemingly minor characters are doing. Roma is that technique writ large. It takes a character who’d likely be in the background of this story, if it were told by anyone else, and puts her front and center. The background and the foreground have switched places.
Over the course of a year, we watch as Cleo tends to the family’s four children, witnesses the husband take an unusually long trip away, and deals with a personal crisis brought on by a lousy boyfriend. Events of wider political significance impinge on the more personal story without being fully explained, a very Cuarón way of doing things. Mexico City during this time was highly volatile, as student protests not unlike the ones that rocked North American universities turn violent, with semi-legal gangs of trained civilians attacking students in the streets. After one of these street fights, Cleo is taken to the hospital, accompanied by the family’s grandmother. It’s an important scene, one that shows what the movie is really up to, and how successful it may be.
The grandmother speaks to the receptionist, trying to get Cleo admitted. The receptionist asks for the patient’s personal information, birthdate, full name and so on. The grandmother has no answers. She doesn’t even know Cleo’s last name, she realizes. And that’s when I realized it: neither did I. That’s a piece of information about Cleo that we’re never given. For all that Cuarón does to bring this minor character to the foreground of the story, she remains, at some level, distant, unknowable.
What to make of this? By taking his technique of bringing the background forward to its logical conclusion, is he reaching the limits of his artistic talent? When I think about Roma in the days after I saw it, I find that what comes to mind isn’t Cleo, or even any of the characters. It’s the setting. That’s what the title means, after all. Roma is the name of the neighbourhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up, and which he recreates here meticulously.
The place of Roma is remarkably, almost tangibly real. There’s a scene early on where Cleo is hanging laundry out to dry on the roof of the house. The camera pans across the rest of the neighbourhood, showing the same action being repeated in different households: maids pinning clothes to clotheslines, the sound of the traffic from the street below wafting up. This is what I want from a movie! Forget story, show me the laundry getting done! Every sound, every model of car, every face, seems like it was beamed back from the 1970s in a time machine. For all Cuarón’s effort to put the background front and center, it’s what remains in the back of the film that remains most transporting.
It made me think that perhaps the next step for Cuarón should be to make a film without any characters or story to speak of, one that is all background. Perhaps a documentary? Maybe he needs to go the Werner Herzog route, trek out to the wilderness and film the melting icecaps. Or maybe the history of a single city block, the stores and traffic and pedestrians, trucks getting unloaded, deliveries being made. He has a knack for depicting large, abstract societal forces in the visceral immediacy of film, the camera frame taking in almost infinite amount of information. Roma has noble intentions, trying to make the plight of an ordinary woman dramatically compelling, but I wonder if his talents wouldn’t be better served by ignoring characters altogether, and looking at the world.
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