Roma isn’t for us.
Roma is a film for its Oscar-winning creator, Alfonso Cuarón. His latest feature, distributed with some controversy by Netflix, is a diary entry brought to screen: a remarkably vivid personal reflection that we are allowed a glimpse into. It is an intimate, fictionalized portrait of a woman from his childhood in 1970s Mexico, during a time of great political and cultural upheaval. The woman at the center of Cuarón’s recollection is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a middle class family in a Mexico City neighborhood. Cleo’s sweet, mild manner leaves her vulnerable to the mercurial nature of the unraveling family that employs her, and the weasel-like charms of a neighborhood boyfriend who abandons her when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Cleo navigates the ebbs and flows of her circumstances quietly, but refuses to allow a harsh word, a dismissive look, or a devastating turn of events break her spirit.
You can feel Cuarón’s admiration for Cleo, and his love of his home country, envelop every single frame. Shot in stunning black-and-white, Roma is first and foremost a marvel of cinematography (of which he was responsible, along with the direction, editing and script). Cuarón’s intention and meticulous consideration is felt in every camera movement and every cut, exhibiting, masterful, micro-level precision. He aims to recapture his recreated childhood’s every detail, from the creeping streams of water that Cleo cleans with that open the film, to the plane in the sky that closes it. His efforts are more than impressive, but the contemplative nature of his filmmaking can be tough to crack through. While beautifully and emotionally shot, some of Cuarón’s beginning scenes feel like they linger longer than necessary. In the context of the film’s personal significance, the work is admirable, but without that understanding, it can feel gratuitous.
Initially, Roma’s narrative seems to meander as well, following Cleo around her daily activities without much plot to guide us. What becomes clearer is how these early slice-of-life moments form Cuarón’s deep appreciation of Cleo’s work, and that of domestic women. He lingers in order to appraise every choice and sacrifice that the women in his film make to maintain peace in their home, and acknowledge how they are ignored and devalued. In one standout scene, Cleo sits alone in a movie theater after she tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant and he goes to the bathroom. The camera is still and silent behind her, even as the movie reel cuts and her fellow moviegoers begin to file out of the theater. Cleo looks around expectantly, even as the realization that he isn’t coming back crests over her. There are levels to her heartbreak – the betrayal, the abandonment, the fear of single motherhood, the fear of judgement from her employer – and Cuarón traverses each one masterfully. As Cleo’s story crystallizes around the dual responsibilities towards her unborn child and the four children she cares for, the film opens up significantly and Cuarón truly lets us in. Roma’s final act, like the waves off the Tuxpan shore, crashes into you with shuddering force, and all of those deceptively banal moments at the offset bring the fierceness of emotion into startlingly sharp focus.
There is much to make of Alfonso Cuarón’s work, but Yalitza Aparicio is the indispensable element that brings Roma to life. A woman of indigenous Mexican descent with no acting experience, Arapicio’s performance is miraculous. There are classically trained actors who can’t achieve the astonishing breadth of emotion that she does with a faraway look and soft-spoken words. Her face wears Cleo’s resigned disappointment and youthful hope beautifully, and looking away when she’s in full command of a scene is impossible. Marina de Tavira is great as Sofia, Cleo’s employer who is strained beneath a crumbling marriage and keeping up appearances for her children, but Arapicio is a near-singular presence. Hers is a debut for the ages, and more than deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma feels like a film he made for himself, to immortalize his youth and pay tribute to the women who raised him. For us, it is a meditation, a reckoning even, on the value of a woman’s work. Cleo’s story is one of unfathomable grace and dignity in spaces where it is frequently withheld from her, and her ability to persevere and love in spite of it. While it may not have been made with us in mind, Cuarón’s gift for conveying deeply resonant themes through visceral visual storytelling makes Roma not just one of the year’s best films, but an absolute privilege to watch.