‘Roma’: Inside the Best Movie of the Year and an Oscar Hopeful
The masterful ‘Roma,’ based on director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood, chronicles the life of a young Mixtec housemaid working in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Roma opens on the floor: a patch of stone tiling that, every few moments, floods with a rush of soapy water. Reflected in the wavelets is a rippling sliver of sky—a glimmer of the heavens as beheld from rigid terra firma. Later, in a moving visual inversion that can only represent transcendence, the film concludes by panning upward to grant us, for the first time, an unobstructed celestial view.
With patience, fragility, and a divine sense of detachment, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón’s most sublime movie since Y Tu Mamá También. In storytelling grace and finesse, it is unparalleled this year. Unfolding in razor-edged black and white, the film captures a moment of unrest—both civil and emotional—in early 1970s Mexico City, when class and gender hierarchies were stark and insurmountable. Several devastating sequences illuminate these challenges with graphic clarity, though for the most part the film takes a tranquil stance, capturing a slice of neo-realist life through the eyes of an aesthete.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón and based on his own upbringing, Roma, which played the New York Film Festival and will hit Netflix on December 14, observes the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young housekeeper (her exact age we never know) of Mixtec heritage burdened with the domestic and psychological labor of rearing and nurturing an upper middle class family. Living-in with a fellow Mixtec maid, Adela (Nancy García)—the two speak Mixtec to one another but exclusively Spanish with their employers—Cleo takes care of household duties, meal serving, and the brunt of childcare while the resilient matriarch Sofía (a magnetic Marina de Tavira) grapples with financial strains and her absent philandering husband, Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).
Swiftly and effortlessly, we grow familiar with the family’s palatial apartment located in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, which Cuarón, who serves too as the film’s cinematographer (his first time in the role), opts to reveal through steady revolving pans and prolonged static takes. Formed of glass, clay, and stucco with a grand, open staircase and picturesque outdoor clothesline, the home may be entered through a partially-enclosed garage, the floor of which provides the film’s sudsy opening shot. This driveway is almost always littered with feces from the energetic family dog, who seems to boast a rate of expulsion faster than anyone could scrub up (though Cleo is scolded for it on several occasions). Four children—three brawling boys and one picked-on girl, Sofi (Daniela Demesa)—stampede the halls in relentless fits of pique or glee or some timeless childhood combination.
Cleo is at once part of the family and remote from it. While the family lounges and laughs in front of the television, Cleo kneels on a pillow beside the couch with one of the boys’ arms wrapped around her—until Sofía orders that she go fetch tea for “the doctor.” At bedtime, Cleo grasps Sofi’s hands as they sing in Mixtec together before kissing her and the other younger children goodnight. Dr. Antonio, when he does get around to coming home, may get a seat at the dinner table while Cleo stands to the side, but it is Cleo to whom the children say “I love you,” and from whom they hear it back. Sofía and her mother, who lives-in with the family as well, are less overtly affectionate. “She’s taking care of us,” Cleo says of the grandmother when she retires to the hut she shares with Adela and reminds her to turn out the light, per the elderly woman’s request. “Taking care we don’t waste electricity,” Adela chuckles in response.
On their own time, Cleo and Adela are able to have their own lively fun, going out to eat or to the local movie house, at times accompanied by Adela’s boyfriend and his martial arts-inclined cousin, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), with whom Cleo allows herself to become cautiously involved. In one memorable date scene, Fermín grabs a shower rod in a motel room and wields it in a lengthy impromptu judo demonstration, all done in the nude. It’s a humorous moment that, cast in the shadow of later knowledge about Fermín’s more dubious side, turns from endearing to ominous.
In this world, men are suspicious, foolish, and less than reliable—but Cuarón is careful to illustrate how class still reigns as the chief distinguisher of who holds power. When Dr. Antonio sheds his family for a mistress, there’s nothing Sofía can do but rage at him and beg him to return. When Fermín leaves Cleo in a lurch, there is nothing she can do at all.
There is an elemental quality to the film that’s put to subtle symbolic use, engaging the ocean, an earthquake, and a forest fire to signify the cultural and sociopolitical instability of the moment. The urban Mexico City tableau finds a foil in the bucolic countryside, where the family reunites with rich relatives who mount taxidermy heads of all of the manor’s deceased dogs on the wall—bringing to mind the generations of maids who each, presumably, faced rebuke for not cleaning up dog poop in time.
Roma is, overall, a quiet film, stable and calmly alert even when the volatility onscreen goes, within minutes, from zero to 100. The film gives the impression, heightened by the choice of black and white, of a collective memory representative of a larger axiom of human experience. Beholding our heroine, we intuit that guilt and fury lurk beneath her surface, repressed by necessity. But Cuarón declines to probe or ponder Cleo, or even the more emotive Sofía. He knows it is not our job to judge or analyze. We are here to witness, to feel, and to not forget.