You could make a hundred movies based on each individual frame in Roma: a plane reflected in a puddle is filled with hundreds of people passing through; a wedding in the background of a tragic family moment; as some head out to fight a fire raging on the outskirts of another celebration, the party continues on the sidelines. Each scene is a world of its own.
Alfonso Cuarón’s astoundingly beautiful black and white film centers around Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio), a live-in nanny and housekeeper charged with the care of a middle class family of four (and their Good dog!) in Mexico City, but Roma is wildly ambitious, and captures the scope of the human condition on screen with virtuosity. It’s electric, a feast of sounds and sights and details that border on overload. It’s joyous and deeply sad. It engages with such enormous themes as gender, race, and class — but also the micro-relationships that shape our lives. And if that sounds abstract, or grand, well … it is.
The opening shot sets the scene for what’s to come, in more ways than one. At first, we don’t see Cleo, who is pouring water onto the courtyard stones in the Mexico City neighborhood the film gets its name from. The water rushes forward and then recedes, like waves (foreshadowing the film’s climax, which I won’t spoil), as we follow Cleo in the minutiae of her duties. This is her world. And then suddenly, members of the family she works for start trickling back in. First the four kids with their grandmother, Señora Teresa (Verónica García), then their mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and then finally, the man of the house, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who spends what seems like hours trying to fit his enormous car into the narrow driveway in a hilarious crescendo of foiled masculinity.
Set against a backdrop of political instability in the 1970s, Roma is very concerned with the concept of space — who gets to occupy what moment, and how does that affect their experience and memory of it? What narratives do we focus on, and take care to tell?
That makes sense, as Roma is the product of Cuarón’s own memories of his childhood nanny and family housekeeper, Libo. But while he’s very much a part of telling this particular story (along with directing, he also wrote the screenplay, and helmed the cinematography), it’s not one that reflects his perspective. In fact, it’s like a catharsis of sorts, the filmmaker coming to terms with the complex lines that separate and bind the people who mean most to him.
Still, Cleo (the protagonist loosely modeled on Libo), not a fragmented version seen through the eyes of others, is who we’re following through these many spaces — some of which she can inhabit, and others where she can’t quite fit. Within the family home, Cleo retreats in the background. This is their space, and though she participates in family activities, she never forgets that she’s not one of them. In one striking scene, the family is together watching TV on the couch as Cleo sits on a pillow on the floor with one of the children. They’re a unit — until Sofia tells Cleo to get Antonio some tea, and she rises to perform that task, leaving the others to their entertainment. As fellow film critic Monica Castillo astutely points out, it’s a moment that feels “almost as if Cuarón were revisiting these memories and realizing how [Libo] must have felt to be treated that way by his mother.”
As she leaves, we go with her. Cleo is firmly our point of interest. We get to know her beyond her work, as a fully-fledged person with desires, hopes and dreams of her own. She laughs with her friend and fellow housekeeper, Adela (Nancy García García) with whom she can speak her native Mixtec dialect that the family disdains (Aparicio actually had to learn to speak Mixtec for the role); she has a sexual relationship with a man, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero, who even gets a full-frontal nudity moment), who turns out to be a major fuccboi and leaves her pregnant.
It’s nearly impossible to believe that someone who has no previous acting experience could be this good. Aparacio was reportedly studying to become a preschool teacher when her sister told her about a film audition for what would eventually turn out to be the role of Cleo. Her soft voice and bright smile bely a spine of steel, as she carries her own immense burdens, as well as those of the people she works for.
As Sofia and Antonio’s marriage falls apart, she turns to Cleo for moral support, and as an outlet for her suppressed rage — at her husband, at his mistress, at herself, and the expectations that put her in this position. But the two women enjoy an oddly intimate closeness as well. As a mother, Sofia helps Cleo with her own pregnancy, punctuating even the harshest of words with acts of kindness that blur the lines between employer and employee. Even family matriarch Teresa, usually so removed from Cleo’s orbit, is brought closer to her by a distinctly female-focused traumatic event. Ultimately, they are women, excluded from other male spaces by virtue of their gender. (Cuarón often dwells in the gray areas between demarcations, as when he shows two little boys — one rich, one living in a slum — playing at astronaut. They may be divided by class, and even race, but they both dream of the same far away place.)
In stark contrast with a movie like The Help, Roma doesn’t seek to present a rosy solution, nor does it pass judgement. It’s concerned with the details, the small things that make up a life and make it meaningful. Everyone matters in Roma — but especially those who so often get overlooked.
“Roma” is screening in select theaters, and will be available to stream on Netflix December 14.