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Roma (2018) is that special kind of movie that you can’t wait to see a second time. It rewards repeat viewings, both because of the film’s rich visual landscape as well as its story, an honest human portrait that is specifically rooted in one person’s (the Director’s) memory, but also widely relatable. The eighth film from award-winning Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, Gravity), Roma is his most personal work to date. Semi-autobiographical, the film is meant as a kind of love letter to the domestic workers who helped to raise Cuarón. Roma does a superb job of telling a truly human story that embraces the domestic and the societal, the intimate and the political with both a revealing and compassionate eye.
Roma focuses on the lives of one middle class family, and in particular the domestic workers who are critical to their sanity and survival, in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early 1970s. The film follows the married couple in the family, Sofia and Antonio, as they whether stress in their relationship and an eventual separation. We see how this domestic strife impacts the four children – Pepe, Sofi, Toño, Paco – and their grandmother, Teresa. The film pays particular attention to one of the domestic workers, Cleo, who is employed by the family. We watch as she completes countless daily monotonous tasks – washing clothes, washing floors, making tea, preparing meals, cleaning dishes, watching the dog, etc. We also watch as Cleo performs tasks above and beyond what one would expect a housekeeper to perform, namely helping to raise the children – waking them up in the morning, tucking them in at night, making sure they don’t kill themselves, sharing intimate moments with them, and helping to shield them from the turbulence in their parents’ marriage. Shifting at times between the background and foreground of the story is the larger socio-political landscape of Mexico City in the early 1970s – we hear about land disputes, student protests and government aggression. The heart of the story is Cleo and her struggles both within and without the family; her struggles for dignity and love, for safety, survival, and meaning.
The film is well cast, and the actors all portray their characters with superb realism. American audiences will likely not recognize the names, and this is for the best, as it allows the audience to easily get lost in the specific memories brought to life on the screen. Roma has no music, no score or soundtrack to propel the action or cue us as to what emotion we should be feeling at a particular moment. Instead, natural sounds add texture and color to each frame. At times, this natural sound is as raucous as any orchestral score, as in the scene when we are outside of the movie theater with Cleo and hear the wild commotion of vendors hawking their wares. This choice of forgoing a score or soundtrack lends the film more authenticity in a way, and helps to prevent any kind of distraction from our direct emotional investment in the characters themselves.
As beautiful and powerful as the story is, it would be worth watching Roma with the sound off. Shot in beautiful black and white photography, the composition and framing of many of the scenes is both arresting and exciting, capable of monopolizing your attention. There are numerous stationary shots that pan from left to right, letting you slowly take in the environment. Long dolly shots propel you through scenes as they unfold. Cuarón uses jarring still shots during key moments to act as a kind of foreboding omen – once when Cleo watches rubble fall on an incubator in a hospital, and a second time when she looks at a broken glass during a New Year’s celebration. Both images predict darkness around the corner, in relation to Cleo’s pregnancy. There are a number of bravura set pieces in the film; these are long takes that develop organically and magically in front of your eyes. The beautiful composition of these scenes, the unbelievable choreography and preparation involved, have to be seen to be believed. In one such scene, we watch as Cleo walks through a local neighborhood, on her way to confront her absent boyfriend, Fermín. In the background, we hear a government announcement attempting to assuage local concerns. Off in the distance, as Cleo walks by in the foreground, we are surprised by the site of a man shooting out of a cannon, celebrating the government initiative.
One of my favorite details in the film is a repeated visual motif, the image of a plane flying overhead. We see this in the opening and closing shots of the film. In the opening shot, which is a long close up of a puddle of water on the ground, we see the reflection of a plane flying overhead. At the end of the film, we see this same plan fly over the family’s home. To me, the plane is a kind of reminder of the cyclical nature (at times monotonous) of Cleo’s life within the family; the plane helps to mark time and call attention to the cycles that Cleo, and we all go through. There are ups and downs, joys and sorrow, pleasure and pain, but through all of this, we can count on the need for motion and the need to get up in the morning and do the many daily tasks that give our lives form and structure. The image of the plane is also a reminder of the difference in opportunity for someone like Cleo and someone who might be traveling on that plane. Whereas Cleo’s big journey in the film is to a village outside of the Roma neighborhood (a village that we see is akin to a slum), the people on the plane might be traveling to a different country. The mobility and opportunity represented by this plane are not available to Cleo.
A story like that portrayed in Roma could easily be played as a kind of underdog tale, where we identify with the domestic workers and vilify the family and outside world whose success rests on the backs of these laborers. Instead, we are shown a much more complex and compelling narrative. Cleo is treated as both an employee and a family member. She is at times neglected and abused, others respected and loved. During times of particular strain with her husband, we watch Sofia yell at Cleo and hurtle unreasonable requests and complaints at her. However, we also watch Sofia stand by Cleo during her unplanned pregnancy and treat her as a family member when Cleo is depressed following her eventual unsuccessful delivery. The “villains” in the story, or the closest thing to it, are the father, Antonio, who leaves his wife and family for a fling, and Cleo’s boyfriend, Fermín, who leaves her upon learning she’s pregnant. Fermín becomes even more unpalatable when we later watch him aggressively threaten Cleo, and also murder a protesting student in cold blood. However, both Fermín and Antonio are sympathetic. Antonio is not so much evil or bad as weak and out of control. Fermín himself tells us his origin story, a story of pain, death and hardship, which has clearly shaped him into the person he is today; someone who cannot abide threats to his invulnerability.
While she has many reasons to be sad and without hope, Cleo ultimately finds a kind of happiness and sense of purpose during the film. She has a reliable, solid kinship and sisterhood with the other housekeepers in the house and surrounding area. She feels a part of the family, especially among the children who often express their love for her. She is a kind of sister to Sofia, with whom she shares the experience of being mistreated and neglected by a man. Cleo’s indispensability to the family gives her what seems to be self-confidence, pride and contentment; within the family, she has a place where she is safe, loved and needed.
Roma is a welcome reminder that sometimes the most breathtaking and memorable films are those that forego special effects and overt shock value for a stripped down, human, relatable story. The honesty of the film, the emotional connections we make with Cleo, the other domestic workers, and the family are more than enough to keep our attention and leave us wanting more. Do yourself a favor and see Roma as soon as possible.