Film Review: Roma

Alfonso Cuarón looks back at the maid who made the artist.
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Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is determined to make us see. To really see.

What a specific place and time—Mexico City in the 1970s—looks like. How a particular household—an upper-middle-class family, with children and mother and father and grandmother—is set up. Where the live-in servants fit in all of this.

And to make us not just really see, but truly feel.

Cuarón’s intentions are announced right with the film’s beginning. It’s a static shot, behind the opening titles, of a tiled patio. The floor, we realize eventually, is being washed. But all we see is the water, sloshing over everything and down a drain. Occasionally the liquid pools for a second and becomes a dirty mirror. We glimpse brief reflections—a square of sky, a passing plane.

The scene goes on—and on—for several minutes, and at first it’s incredibly, deliberately dull, like some Warholian chronicle of paint drying. But slowly, as we watch, our feeling changes. An almost meditative state takes over. And, then, bizarrely, a kind of expectation—as we wait hopefully for that plane to reappear, for something, anything different.

And this, of course, is completely Cuarón’s point.

Not just to remind us, quite emphatically, who’s in charge of presenting these images, and whose job it is to watch them. (Appropriately enough, because this is, on one level, a film about power.) But also to announce the story’s overarching theme: This is what life is like, one day after another, one year after another. It can feel like a long, slow blur, in which absolutely nothing happens.

And then, suddenly, everything does.

A year-in-the-life story, Roma—the title refers to the neighborhood the family lives in, but also not inadvertently recalls the nostalgic Fellini film—is partly about the end of a marriage. The father has packed his bags and left. The mother hopes that the separation is only temporary. Meanwhile, the children remain wrapped up in their own lives, blissfully unaware.

But we really only get glimpses of all this, through half-opened doors and half-overheard conversations. Because what Roma is mostly about—who it’s about—is Cleo, the family’s live-in maid and nanny. She has her own life, and her own troubles—beginning with the lunkhead boyfriend who gets her pregnant and then gets going.

That story, and its complications, is perhaps the most devastating one in the film, but there’s no shortage of striking scenes (all shot in glorious black-and-white, and by Cuarón himself). There’s a political rally that turns into a riot, and then into sudden executions. A fancy holiday party in the country that’s suddenly, violently interrupted by a wildfire. A ragged trip to the seashore that promises a momentary escape and soon threatens its own tragedy.

But there are smaller, sharply observed moments, too. Like the way the obstinate, status-conscious father insists on a car too big for the carport and then has to laboriously squeeze it in, night after night. Or the easy camaraderie between Cleo and Adela, the cook, when they have a minute to themselves just to gossip and laugh. Or the odd, surreal moments—sad marching musicians, an immense martial-arts rally—that interrupt the otherwise starkly realistic storytelling.

Roma is a remarkable aesthetic achievement. But it’s a movingly humanistic one, too, because Cuarón—who has said the film was inspired by his own childhood—is refreshingly fair to both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” characters. And although their lives unfold in very different, albeit mostly parallel worlds, sometimes they intersect.

It’s a film, yes, about how divided we are—but also about how, sometimes in times of trouble, we can unite. And how complicated we always remain.

Certainly we’re set up to identify with Cleo, the long-suffering maid—played by the determinedly stoic Yalitza Aparicio—but she’s not presented as a saint. Nor are her employers portrayed as monsters. The mistress of the house (Marina de Tavira) can be sharp or demanding, but she can be kind, too. And ultimately the natural state that connects them—being female—is far greater than the manmade economic system that separates them.

Yes, in this world, everyone is defined—and divided—by class. But within those limits, everyone still tries to behave decently to each other.

What an extraordinary concept, these days.

Although there is one heartbreaking development in Roma, there are few extravagant revelations. The family’s troubles play out much as we expect they will; Cleo’s irresponsible boyfriend does not suddenly grow a spine. There is a strong and powerful climax near the end—and one which, visually, draws on the watery images of the film’s first few minutes—and yet, ultimately, it upends no one’s life. Things continue as they always have.

One day passes into the next. One year ends, and a new one begins. Nothing ever changes, Until, suddenly, we realize everything has.