In Search of Lost Time
Film review by Jude Joseph Lovell
As we grow older and accumulate experience and wisdom, it becomes more important to sift through and distill our memories. We do this to better understand who we are, where we are still going, and perhaps use what we’ve learned to assist those coming up behind us.
Artists, of course, have often made entire careers out of this process. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time in English), a seven-volume novel by the French writer Marcel Proust, who, interestingly enough, was barely a Silver Sager himself (age 41) when he published the first volume in 1913. He died while writing the final installment at age 50. This epic is regarded by many as one of the most important works of the twentieth century and is considered the gold standard for artists intent on examining their personal history.
We now have a new work in a different medium that can be mentioned in company with In Search of Lost Time. That is Roma, an exceptional new film by the Academy Award–winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, best known for bigger-budget movies like Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men.
His new offering was financed by Netflix and is readily accessible through that service—although it is clear that this film’s beauty and technical artistry would be best appreciated on a much larger screen than your TV or computer.
Roma tells the story of a disintegrating upper-middle-class family in the region of Mexico City that gives the film its title. It takes place in 1970 and 1971, a time of social and political unrest there. The story is related primarily from the point of view of Cleo, a live-in maid who works tirelessly while also trying to maintain a life of her own. Cleo is burdened with what Cuarón has described as a “triple-whammy” in Mexico: she is female, she comes from extreme poverty, and she is descended from indigenous tribes in that country. She is, in effect, the lowest of the low.
We follow Cleo throughout the quiet rituals of her days, a never-ending regimen of manual labor and subservience—she cooks, she cleans up after animals and humans, she tends to children and adults, and she keeps the whole household on a tight schedule. As portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio, who has not appeared in a feature film before, Cleo says little but executes all of these tasks with a kind of quiet grace, even though she is subjected to verbal abuse at times and completely ignored at others. Yet, as the story unfolds and both Cleo and the family endure painful experiences together, the viewer comes to understand just how integral and meaningful her role in the household actually is.
There are many astonishing aspects to this film. It has gorgeous photography (the film was shot in a clean, crisp black and white by Cuarón himself), many stunning visual metaphors, remarkable sound editing (rain, ocean waves, singing birds, barking dogs, urban unrest), and amazing acting performances. There are moments of great trauma and beauty throughout, capped off by a masterful final sequence that starts in a department store, explodes into riotous city streets, and ends with a heart-stopping scene in a maternity ward.
What is most remarkable about Roma, however, is the bravery and the vision of its creator. Alfonso Cuarón here is telling his personal story. He filmed the movie both in the neighborhood and in the actual house he grew up in, and even went so far as to cast actors who physically resemble the figures in his early life. The story presents a candid portrayal of his own family and is dedicated to his family’s real-life domestic servant, whom Cuarón has described as having been a mother to him in a number of ways.
To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the deeper we look into ourselves, the more we resemble everybody else. In choosing to tell his story through the eyes of another person, Cuarón deliberately shifts the focus from one human life to every human life. In its language and especially in its images, Roma is that rare masterpiece that erases borders and bleeds all colors into one. It is both a humbling lesson and a glittering treasure. It shouldn’t be missed.
Photo credits by Netflix.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.