Roma has been widely hailed as one of 2018’s most significant cinematic releases. It is a work of consummate auteurship from acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men), who wrote, directed, shot and co-edited this inescapably personal domestic drama, set in the Mexico City of his childhood. Nominated for ten Oscars and a slew of international awards, the narrative is carried by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid living with and working for a white middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district of the city. The film explores the events that befall her over the course of a year or so, ranging from the mundane to the life-changing and back again.
Cleo is quiet, dutiful and enjoys (as a general rule) a warm relationship with the family she works for, acting as a surrogate mother to an unruly gaggle of children while their parents’ marriage disintegrates. Roma is Aparicio’s first film appearance, and she is utterly convincing as Cleo. This lack of artifice and sense of non-professional authenticity is matched by the rest of the cast, from the young children to Cleo’s sinister one-time lover. The characters are so real and so suffused with Cuarón’s recollections of the past that you forget you are watching written performances. It is neorealism at its very best, blurring the line between drama and documentary. Aparicio has been nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and if she wins, she will be the first Indigenous Mexican woman to do so.
The obvious contrasts of class and race between Cleo and the family are acknowledged, if only indirectly. At a New Year’s gathering, the white adults drink and sing while their indigenous maids entertain the children. Cleo is deferential towards her employers, enduring without objection the disdain of the agitated matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira). These themes are not explored very deeply, however, and Cleo’s subservient position is neither challenged nor changed. At the end, she is in the same position as she was at the beginning, her story bookended by routine domestic work.
This focus on the everyday sublimates the few moments of high tension. One of the most dramatic sequences features a reconstruction of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, in which student demonstrators were attacked and killed by government soldiers. The horrors of the conflict are conveyed through a select few shots – a glimpse of the panicking crowd through a shop window, a group crouched behind a car, a young woman cradling a body and screaming for help – and is almost immediately supplanted by something far more personal and devastating. The political upheaval of the era is present (protests, rallies, land seizures) and its emotional clout is acknowledged, but compared to the smaller story of Cleo it fades into the background. It works because while Roma is a drama, it is a character-driven one. Everything is about Cleo’s experiences, and nothing more.
For some viewers, this may not be a positive thing. At just over two hours long, Roma can feel slow at times. Long panning shots linger over room interiors and sweep across landscapes, all in strikingly crisp digital monochrome. Occasionally these shots are so long and incorporate so many other details (both audio and visual) that it is easy to lose track of the characters as they move through the environment. It is a shame that most people will only ever see Roma via Netflix, because the sheer size and detail of the backgrounds seem made for the big screen.
The monochromatic visual style of Roma also marks an important departure from what we expect of Mexican cinema. Internationally successful Mexico-based films such as Coco and The Book of Life have embraced the stereotypical vibrancy and colour of Latin America. Cuarón’s choice to film in black and white lends the story a nostalgic feel, like a sequence of memories, or like flicking through an old photo album. The length of the shots gives you time to immerse yourself in the characters’ environments, and the steady, mechanical movement of the camera is observational rather than empathetic. The overall effect is simultaneously detached and intensely vivid, heightened by the film’s naturalistic dialogue and excellent acting.
These neorealistic overtones are unsurprising given that the film is semi-autobiographical. Roma is dedicated to Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, Cuarón’s nanny and the inspiration for Cleo, and the house used for filming in Colonia Roma sits opposite the house in which Cuarón grew up. The result is a deeply personal contemplation of the chaos of family life; a small and affecting story set against a vast dramatic backdrop. Cuarón has created a compelling homage to the world of his youth, and to a woman for whom he clearly has great affection. He has drawn on his own memories, observing them through the detached perspective of an outsider, and the final film is, like Cleo herself, quiet and dignified and profoundly, unobtrusively strong.