‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceptively mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



Ida’s Choice: Thoughts on Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013)

This review is about the acclaimed Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s newest film Ida (2013)It was screened at TIFF 2013, and since then, at numerous other film festivals. Slowly, it has arrived at the big screens in our cities recently. The following post discusses crucial thematic elements. Therefore, spoiler warning.


What forms one’s identity? Is it nationality? Race and ethnicity? Or something that transcends these boundaries? And, does one have a choice?


At the beginning, Anna’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) Catholicism is chosen for her. Raised in a Polish convent as an orphan, Anna knows no other kind of life. As an 18 year-old novitiate on the verge of taking her vow to become a nun, her Mother Superior tells her she should meet her closest relative. The one living relative she has is her mother’s sister, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Wanda is a hard-drinking, life-weary and tormented soul. Having lived through the horror of the second world war, she is confronted by yet another formidable front in post-war Poland, Soviet Communism. As a state prosecutor and later a judge, Wanda survived by compromising with the oppressive regime. She rises to a respectable position while sending many to their doom.

Poland in the 1960’s saw the beginning of wavering in hardline communism, a loosening up in society. Wanda has now become disillusioned and cynical, immersing in alcohol and one-night stands. With Anna appearing at her doorstep, she has to confront with not only a family’s dreadful past but her own existential present. Her licentious lifestyle is a sharp contrast to Anna’s spiritual devotion. A foil of the sacred and the profane, but not in a dogmatic frame. We see the two learning to appreciate and understand each other in a poignant way.

The sacred and the profane

For Anna, coming out of the convent does not mean only an eye-opener of the real world. From her aunt, she learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is a Jew. Her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She was kept safe in the shelter of the Catholic nuns. Her lineage concealed. Now Anna/Ida has to face with a seemingly incompatible identity, as her aunt bluntly puts it, ‘a Jewish nun’.

Aunt and niece go on a road trip to seek out the graves of Ida’s parents and eventually discover more about their deaths. They begin to know each other in a deeper way. The knowledge and the experience they have with each other may be life affirming for Ida; unfortunately for Wanda, they lead to despair.

While on the road, Wanda picks up a hitch-hiker, a young jazz musician, saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He opens up yet another window for Anna, that of jazz, Coltrane, and all the rest.

The 80-minute, visually inspiring film is shot in aesthetically stunning black and white cinematography, 1.37:1 Academy Ratio with a square frame; the medium is the message. Austere, minimal, suggestive of harsh, bygone days, and with human characters often in the bottom of the frame, small and insignificant compared to the vast landscape. What is human in the whole scheme of things? How does one define oneself?

Small characters against large landscape

The cinematography reminds me of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The young priest comes into his first parish, dwarfed and intimidated by the burden of his task, the spiritual warfare for which he is unprepared:

Walking through the woods

Like Bresson, Pawlikowski uses a non-actor for a major role. Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. She has never acted before. Pawlikowski found her in a coffee shop. Her portrayal of Anna/Ida is hauntingly authentic. Her face is pristine, yet her gaze is wise beyond her looks. Her aloof expression offers an unspoken evaluation of the world she sees, both in and out of the convent’s walls.

After a pivotal event, Ida tries on her aunt’s dresses, her high heels, smokes her cigarette and imagines another life. In this elegant attire she dances with the Jazz musician Lis. She listens to him play Coltrane on his sax. A whole new world awaits her if she so chooses. But it only entices for a short while. Ida yearns for something deeper, more meaningful. “And then?” she asks Lis several times in response to his offer of coming along with him.

Three characters, three different choices. Wanda chooses a way out that’s tragic.

The young musician Lis chooses jazz and whatever that path might take him. Despite his desire to have Ida come along with him, he does not, or maybe cannot, answer her two-word questions: “And then?” What’s the purpose, after all?

Ida chooses the transcendent over the secular, not that she judges the world, but that she yearns for meaning in the spiritual. It is not so much about choosing Catholicism over her Jewish lineage, but that she has made her own decision in becoming who she is. Ida’s choice is one that surpasses arbitrary, man-made boundaries of race and ethnicity, or the appeal of materials and pleasures; she chooses to devote to her Christ who had sacrificed all.

An image from the beginning of the film vividly comes back to my mind. Anna and three others carrying the Christ statue on their shoulders like a cross:

Carrying Christ

In the final shot we see Ida back in her habit attire. The moving camera captures a resolved and almost rejuvenated face, walking briskly with her little suitcase in hand, heading back to the convent. This place is now a personal choice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Ida wins The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.

Feb. 21, 2015: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: Wins BAFTA Best Film not in the English Language

Jan. 15, 2015: 2 Oscar noms, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography

Dec. 11: Golden Globe nom for Best Foreign Language Film

Dec. 7: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film and Agata Kulesza Best Supporting Actress at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle

Other posts you might like:

Nebraska: Colour Is Superfluous

Diary of a Country Priest: An Easter Meditation

Diary Of A Country Priest: Film Adaptation

Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick

It all began when I watched the “The Tree of Life” trailer in the theatre. I was mesmerized. A few seconds into the trailer I decided it would be a must-see for me. Then later it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 22. I’m now catching up on Terrence Malick’s previous works before “The Tree of Life” screens here in our city in a few weeks time.

The reclusive auteur Terrence Malick has only made five feature films in his directing career which spans four decades: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978, Won Oscar for Best Cinematography), The Thin Red Line (1998, seven Oscar noms), The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life (2011, Won Palme d’Or at Cannes, so far). His academic background in philosophy at Harvard and later as a Rhode Scholar at Oxford has found its expressions in his cinematic creation.

“Days of Heaven” in the Criterion Collection is a fantastic restoration and transfer. I watched it on the DVD. I suppose the Blu-ray would be even more spectacular. Some call “Days of Heaven” one of the most beautiful films ever made. Well, I haven’t seen all movies ever made to say that, nevertheless, of all that I have seen, such a statement is certainly not an exaggeration. Using mostly natural light, every shot is cinematic poetry. Enthralling scene sequences joined together to produce a piece of artwork that speaks the quiet, and sometimes silent, language of visual eloquence.

Written and directed by Malick, the film is nostalgically set in the 1910’s. The story is about Bill (Richard Gere), a hot-tempered steel mill worker in Chicago, who has to flee after an altercation leaving a man dead. He and his lover Abby (Brook Adams), and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) run away together and end up working in the harvest on a Texas farm. Pretending to be Bill’s sister, Abby is soon courted by the farmer (Sam Shepard). Overhearing that the farmer has only a year to live due to an illness, Bill persuaded Abby to marry the farmer so they can inherit his properties after his death. Every choice has its consequence. The plot unfolds in intriguing ways. Biblical parallels are deftly embedded in the scenes, Abraham and Sarah, the plague of locusts, Linda’s voice over allusion to the apocalypse… not just offering stunning images but thought-provoking as well.

And I must mention, I have a connection to the movie. It was shot right here in southern Alberta, and some scenes right here in Calgary, in Heritage Park to be exact. No, I wasn’t an extra. But proud that this regarded by some as one of the most beautiful films was shot entirely on location here in this province. It is the magnificent expanse of Alberta’s wheat fields and not those in Texas that we see in the film. The reason: from the DVD commentary I learn that the wheats were four feet tall in Alberta while those in Texas were only two feet.






CLICK HERE to read my review of The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick.

CLICK HERE to my post “A Sequel to Days of Heaven, Mr. Malick?”

Photo Source: Screenmusings.org. Use as per outlined in Fair Use, for review and educational purposes only.

Sense and Sensibility (2008 TV): Part 2

Even though the last kiss in the movie goes to Elinor and Edward, I feel this second part of Sense and Sensibility belongs to Marianne and Colonel Brandon.  Indeed, David Morrissey’s Colonel Brandon has been the leading man and Charity Wakefield’s Marianne shines.  Their lines even bring back some epic images of a past Austen adaptation.  Just dwell on them again:

Marianne: My feelings for him has changed so much…I love him.

Elinor: Then I am happy for you.

Words of endearment reminiscent of Davis’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995)…flashback to Lizzy’s response to Darcy’s second proposal, and as she explains to her unbelieving father of her accepting it, and of course, Mr. Bennet’s loving consent upon hearing her declaration of love for Darcy.  As for the imaginary scene of the fencing duel?  Isn’t that just reminds us of Darcy’s own struggle?  Further … isn’t it true that such an improvised addition could work just as well with Darcy and Wickham too?

I think we have seen enough Davis adaptations to not be surprised by his interpretive visions…not authentically out of Austen’s book, but effective just the same … and we forgive him yet again.

Indeed, not only the fencing duel, which is nicely shot, mesmerizing and dream-like, but all the scenes we see in this new version that are Davis’ own imagination are all quite effective, thanks also to the excellent camerawork and cinematography.  Scenes such as Brandon’s gentle touch of Marianne’s hand as she lay ill in her bed, the invitation to his own library and leaving Marianne to the privacy of her own enjoyment of the pianoforte, to the taming of the falcon, all vividly depict Brandon’s patient and quiet yearning for her.  And Marianne, even though by nature a free-spirited creature like the falcon, would eventually fly back and rest on the arm of the one who beckons her with his steadfast love.  Davis’ imaginary scenes are most effective in portraying Marianne’s turnaround.

There are some very moving moments for Elinor too.  Desperately seeking solitude in her silent suffering, Elinor finds shelter in a cave by the seaside.  The camera’s point of view from inside the cave looking out, framing her silhouette against a tumultuous ocean, a stunning vision.  Or, when she sits on a bench, again alone, facing the wide open sea, waiting, doubting, or just plain accepting… Our hearts pour out to her, and yet, it is Elinor’s perseverance that has won us over, not sentimentality.  Now that is authentic Austen.

At the end, as Edward enters the Dashwood cottage to propose to Elinor, the slightly shaky camerawork is most effective in depicting the agitated anticipation of both lovers, for Edward, the nervous uncertainty of his reception, and for Elinor, the restless suspense and later unpredictable euphoria….kudos to the screenwriter, director, and cinematographer.

The Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway once made a controversial remark criticising film versions of literary work as mere “illustrated books”.  Regarding Jane Austen’s work, he said:

“Cinema is predicated on the 19th century novel.  We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels–there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world.  What a waste of time.”

(Click here for the Wales news article containing the above quote.)

To which I respond:  The visual can powerfully bring out the essence of the literary.  A good film adaptation is more than illustration of printed words, but an inspiring visual narrative.  At best, it can offer an interpretive vision and a new perspective to a timeless piece of writing.

The present adaptation is a vivid example.


Click here to go back to Sense and Sensibility Part 1.

Don’t forget to vote in the Poll on the sidebar, Which Austen heroine do you think Jane was most like?