Unless you live in a major city—thank you, Los Angeles—you likely won’t be able to see Roma on the big screen. Which is a real shame, because watching this film in a theater with a packed crowd adds so much. Maybe it’s just the posthumous joy in remembering all the air being sucked out of the room on cue, a treat for any movie fan and a reminder that Alfonso Cuarón is likely the best in the world at what he does.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a maid in Mexico City; it’s early in the 1970s. She works for a family with four children; the husband is a doctor who is often “traveling for work” and the mother is a bit of a lush who vacillates between being friendly and threatening. Cleo doesn’t speak much; she seems to adore the children and to find happiness in brief moments. But when a sexual encounter with her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) goes awry, she’s forced to balance both her own issues and the family of her employer falling apart.
Cleo leaves so much unsaid, and so much is unsaid about her; it’s a level of restraint that most other films never approach. All we know is what we see, and how she’s treated by those in her orbit. Is she content with her life as a maid, especially in comparison to her other options? Our only momentary snippet of backstory is fellow maid Adela sharing bad news from Cleo’s village and wondering if they should visit her mother; Cleo quickly changes the subject. Thanks to Aparicio’s performance and Cuarón’s brilliance, we have more than enough reason to root for Cleo as our protagonist, even if we aren’t entirely sure what she actually wants.
Is Cleo tenacious? She survives severe physical hardships and the occasional vicious berating from her employers; she also essentially co-mothers four children. It’s telling that, when Cleo goes to visit Fermín at his martial arts training class, she’s the only one—among trainees and recruits—who seems to be able to master his “undoable” move. Should we lament that she is likely capable of more, or cheer where she’s ended up? In 1970s Mexico City, this life may be the best she’s got.
Cuarón has said that Roma is “90% autobiographical,” which makes Cleo a stand-in for his former maid and Sofia, the mother, a double for his own mom. So is this an extended love letter to the woman who held his family together in times of turmoil? The children clearly love Cleo, and Sofia needs the help, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the response would be if a new nanny were to show up the next day. The kids would throw a fit, sure, but they are forgetful and there are signs that even a beloved maid is window dressing. As long as there’s someone to clean up the dog poop and do the laundry, would they remember who came before? Or does that not matter, because she was there when it counted?
The director’s use of black and white is inspired, partly because it adds gravitas to every story (yes, even Clerks) but mostly because Cleo is browner than her fellow Mexicans. In a world with two colors, she is black and they are white. It adds a whole additional layer to the proceedings; not only is Cleo quiet and compliant, she’s also visually different than the privileged people around her. I don’t know exactly what Cuarón is trying to tell us about Cleo and his childhood; perhaps he’s still piecing together what he felt then and what he knows now.
Compared to Children of Men and Gravity—amazingly, Cuarón’s last two feature films—not much happens in Roma. But a lack of traditional adventure doesn’t mean the famed auteur forgoes using his stylistic flourishes to draw out emotion. He’s known for pulse-pounding moments and extended shots, and the film’s two most memorable scenes are indeed long. One is jarring for its content and its length, and how the two are melded together to embed you in the horrible scenario enfolding; the other is made to feel even more serious than it is, with the amplified sound of crashing waves and the camera’s focus purposely keeping the goal just out of sight. Given their subject matter and context, they might be even more impressive than a battle tracking shot or space exploration. At the very least, they’re just as visceral and intense.
As my friend put it, “Roma will be loved because it allows rich people to empathize with poor people, which is their favorite thing to do. I predict it will win every award, and maybe they will invent some new ones for it.” These are all accurate statements, but acknowledging their accuracy doesn’t make the film any worse. We as audience members can’t literally hop into Cuarón’s shoes and live his life in order to fully appreciate his movie. But we can acknowledge that he’s created something exceptional here; he’s conveyed a personal story and captured real emotion, in a manner—and with a cast—that truly stand out. I won’t be the first, nor the last, to say “Roma is a special film,” but it really is an achievement worth celebrating.