Alfonso Cuarón brings us the life of a maid in 1970s Mexico and the family that she is a part of.
Cleo Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio) is a maid for a moderately wealthy family in Colonia Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. The father of the family, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), regularly leaves for conferences in other countries, leaving his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), to raise their four children with the help of her mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia), Cleo, and another maid Adela (Nancy Garcia).
Adela and Cleo go to the movies with their boyfriends Ramon (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) and Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), respectively. Cleo tells Fermin that she’s possibly pregnant and he promptly abandons her. A doctor confirms Cleo’s pregnancy. Meanwhile, around the area, racial tensions are rising, as are tensions between students and the government, as part of the Mexican Dirty War.
Several months later, Cleo and the children see a movie, only to see Antonio leave the theater with a young woman. It’s revealed that Sofia is aware of her husband’s philandering, but she tries to hide it from her children. Cleo finally manages to track down Fermin at a massive outdoors martial arts class, but he responds by saying he isn’t sure the child is his and threatening to beat Cleo if she contacts him again.
Teresa takes Cleo to buy a crib, but they are caught in the store during the Corpus Christi Massacre. They witness two people gunned down by angry young people, only to find out that one of the killers is Fermin. It’s then that Cleo’s water breaks, but her baby is stillborn. Back with the family, Sofia announces to the children that she’s going to be divorcing Antonio and takes the children to the beach. At the beach, two of the kids are nearly carried off by the current, but Cleo saves them. Sofia and the children all affirm that they love Cleo as a part of the family, but Cleo reveals that she never wanted the baby. They return home to find that Antonio has moved his belongings out of the house, and life goes on.
This movie is Oscar gold. Even though it wasn’t my favorite film nominated for Best Picture this year, it wouldn’t shock me at all if it won. The acting is great, despite the fact that the lead wasn’t a professional actress. The cinematography is as good as exists in film, with great, meaningful, match cuts and perfect control of the imagery. The characters are all interesting and very human. Hell, it’s in black and white, that’s like 10 points on the “is this artsy” scale right there.
The problem with analyzing a movie like this is that much of what makes it amazing is all of the little scenes that seem to have come straight from the memory of Alfonso Cuaron, because they’re so genuine and so unusual that they just don’t feel like they could have come from fiction. It’s not particularly a secret that the family in this is based on Cuaron’s, and the film is even dedicated to the memory of the inspiration for Cleo. One scene from the beginning of the movie that stands out is where one of the sons lies on the roof telling Cleo that he can’t move, because he’s dead. Cleo ends up laying next to him until he can’t resist talking to her, only for her to tell him that she’s dead. There are a number of these small, unusual scenes throughout the film that really seem to represent the tiny moments that bring a level of authenticity to the characters that most films don’t really achieve. It’s doubly impressive because the main character isn’t the surrogate for the author.
Cuaron’s skill in cinematography and editing shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, since it’s pretty much the thing that set the film Gravity apart from other space films, nor should we be surprised at his skill in characterization, given that he wrote Y Tu Mama Tambien and helped adapt Children of Men. However, those movies didn’t really get the level of parallel narrative that this film develops through the great use of the structure of the shots in the film. Themes of classism, of eradication of native cultures, of suppression of the masses, all are interwoven with the much tighter family themes. This all culminates with Cleo’s water breaking during the Corpus Christi Massacre. This was a brutal paramilitary (and military) attack on protesting students demanding greater educational freedom which was notable for ending at hospitals, where Los Halcones, a shock group trained partially by the US, would kill off the wounded, including in surgical suites. We see Fermin sew death directly at the massacre, and also symbolically, with his abandoned child being stillborn. While a lot of other symbols are more blatant (there’s a cut to three crosses that will make you hear the words “meaningful imagery” shout in your head), the film is still emotionally captivating even if you aren’t looking for something deeper. I think that’s probably the hallmark of a truly great film: It doesn’t require a ton of investment, but the more you give it, the more you get.
Overall, I can’t really do this movie that much justice in a review, since it’s so visual and subjective. It’s available on Netflix and I highly recommend watching it.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.