The opening credits for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma unfold atop an image which patiently, dazzlingly, explains itself. The camera is perpendicular to the ground, paving stones laid out in a hexagonal pattern. This perspective on the is revealed when water is splashed across the stones after maybe thirty seconds of titles. The arrival of the suds reveals a square of light reflected above, the outline of a building top in silhouette and, eventually, a plane flying overhead (the latter image becoming one of the film’s motifs). Throughout the film there are similar sequences where the “meaning” or angle on an image is slowly revealed; this opening image in particular prepares us for the frequent reprisal of images of set-ups, weighted with different meaning or import as they reappear.
A second “reveal” occurs for this opening image later on, when we see maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) repeating the action of throwing water across the paving stones from a more conventional angle: it turns out she’s cleaning up the dog shit left by the family pet in the entryway to their large home. Then there’s the father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), returning home from work and struggling to successfully park his enormous Ford Galaxy in the small parking space, repeatedly backing out and approaching from another angle so as not to damage the wing mirrors, which initially appears as a none-too-subtle symbol of his outsize, retrograde masculinity fails to fit into the family unit. But later, once he has taken his leave from the family and absconded with his mistress, bereft mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) delights in drunkenly dragging the car’s side along the wall in a deliberate act of destruction, which itself mirrors an earlier scene where she drives a pregnant Cleo to the hospital and intentionally gets the car sandwiched between two trucks at a red light. The third “act” of this image comes towards the film’s end where, accepting her husband will not be returning, Sofia trades the Galaxy in for a more sensibly-sized Volvo that glides into the entryway without fuss.
Elsewhere, there is the repeated use of deep focus, with background action that draws the viewer’s attention away from the (arguably more important) foreground, as when Cleo is abandoned by boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), after revealing she’s pregnant, at a movie theatre. The pair sit in their seats in the left hand corner of the frame, dwarfed by the action on the huge cinema screen that takes up the rest of the composition. This sets us up for the tragic scene later on where Sofia and Fermin’s child is stillborn, with Sofia in the foreground and the paediatrician’s attempts to perform CPR on the baby obscured by lack of focus in the back.
There are resolves on a metatextual level as well, as Cuarón includes allusions to his previous work. I didn’t notice any Prisoner of Azkaban nods, but there’s a clip from the 1969 film Marooned with two astronauts attempting to reach one another in the vacuum of space, deliberately recalling his Oscar-winning Gravity from 2013, and during the frightening recreation of 1971’s Corpus Christi massacre Cuarón again references Michelangelo’s “Pietà” as a woman holds a dead loved one’s body, something he previously did in Children of Men’s climactic action sequence.
Despite speaking in a post-screening Q&A at the Curzon Soho a couple of weekends ago that he wrote the screenplay in two weeks without regard for structure or arcs, these are elegant and powerful uses of visual and structural meaning. Which is why I was a little disappointed in the title cards which immediately proceed the image of the water on the paving stones.
Language plays a key part in establishing Roma’s exploration of class difference and hierarchy in seventies Mexico, itself inextricably linked to race and gender. Cleo and fellow maid Adela speak to each other not in the Spanish they use for the family, but a dialect derived from the Mixetc languages, spoken by roughly half a million indigenous Mexican peoples. It’s a differentiation that comes up naturally over the course of the film. In an early scene the youngest son of the household complains that he can’t understand what Cleo and Adela are saying to each other. Yet before that scene there is the title card which states outright that different languages will be spoken in the film, and explains how the subtitling style differentiates. Spanish in standard subtitles, [Mixtec in squared brackets], and any other spoken language remains untranslated.
Without it, the “revelation” of the different languages spoken would work similarly to the visual motifs I’ve listed previously. Language becomes one of the key parts of understanding Roma’s politics, intricate as they are. As darker-skinned indigenous peoples, and working class women at that, Cleo and Adela are not understood by most around them and are at the bottom of the food chain, societally speaking. Lower than them are the animals, whose unintelligible (by humans) calls make up most of the film’s soundtrack — there is no non-diegetic music I can remember — from the family pooch and birds to the stray dogs howling throughout the neighbourhood.
The family they work for all speak Spanish, and are nominally top of the chain in their comfortable upper-middle class existence (Antonio is a doctor, Sofia a qualified biochemist, and despite the obvious expense of a live-in grandma and four kids they appear to want for nothing). Yet as much as there is a stark divide between the haves and have-nots delineated linguistically, there are those who are lighter-skinned and better off still. The family, minus Antonio, go to stay at a family friend’s hacienda for New Year’s, where the kids bemoan that the other groups there — including a Swedish family and a rich Mexican who married a blonde American woman — only speak English, and refuse to converse in Spanish.
In this same sequence, one of the other family’s maids who has been brought along on the trip gets lightly mocked by the kids when she can’t conjure up the word to describe the foot of a hill. She gropes for the term but ends up referring to the hill’s skirt, which inspires a boisterous riff on lifting it up and seeing the hill’s panties from the pre-pubescent boys, a gag nonetheless at the expense of the indigenous woman and further highlighting the divide between these rich kids and their servant. Combine this with the moments when other indigenous Mexicans appear in groups — as when Cleo takes a bus to Fermín’s rural hometown to track him down — and their cross-talk is subtitled simply as “[indigenous language],” and you might have had a “resolve” of dialogue and its meaning in Roma similar to the visual rhymes found elsewhere.