Roma is gorgeous. Right off the bat, that much is extremely clear to me. The opening shot plays out like an older-style film, in black-and-white and rolling in all the credits at the beginning over what’s really a beautiful moment of foreshadowing as soap water gets poured over a tiled floor. With this opening, Alfonso Cuarón signifies the emotional trip he’s going to take us on with this film. Directed, produced, shot, edited, and written by Cuarón, Roma follows the life of Cleo (breakout actress Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous Mexican maid, as she works for a wealthy White Mexican family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The film is largely based on Cuarón’s own childhood growing up in this very neighborhood and being raised by a similar indigenous woman named Libo. And the film ultimately turns into a touching love letter for her, meant to show Cuarón’s immense appreciation for all that Libo has done for him, even as his own family was falling apart.
Cuarón’s filmmaking style is abundantly indulged in Roma, with wide lush shots mixed in with wandering camera pans that serve to tell us a bigger picture than the primary plot focuses on. The film initially isn’t very plot-driven or action-heavy; it almost feels like a documentary and we are just watching Cleo work tirelessly to help the family, which consists of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her absent husband, and their four kids. She cleans dog shit, she opens doors, she cooks, she cleans, she turns out the lights, she does laundry, she does absolutely everything in the house, and to the point that this family would be dysfunctional without her. But Cleo has more life to her than just her job. She meets a boy, they have sex, and she becomes pregnant, only for him to immediately leave her in pursuit of his martial arts (or because he’s actually just an asshole). All the while, Sofia’s marriage is falling apart, and her family depends on Cleo so much to get through not just the daily house things, but also the extended family interactions. In this way, Cleo serves as more than a maid - she really is like a surrogate mother to the kids and to Sofia.
This is a beautifully shot film, and I’m so glad Cuarón took it upon himself to shoot it. There are so many incredible shots that depict Cleo going about her day, but visually, she’s but a small speck against the larger backdrop of the neighborhood. There are several tremendous long takes here that are simply breathtaking and deeply emotional. The scene in which Cleo gives birth to her baby is really just one long take that imbues all of Cleo’s complex feelings surrounding this child. All of those feelings bubble up to the surface later in another absolutely phenomenal long take scene when Cleo wades deep into the ocean to rescue Sofia’s drowning children. A spiritual descendant of the iconic ending in The 400 Blows, this scene is reverent, it’s riveting, it’s terrifying. And it reflects Cleo’s own turbulent feelings which are that she never actually wanted that baby. Yet here she is, surrounded by the sobbing embraces of these four children she cares deeply about, and who are not her own.
What I love so much about Roma, and similarly loved so much about Cuarón’s 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También, is that the primary story isn’t depicted in isolation. There’s a larger backdrop to Roma that is rooted in raging politics, ethnic colonialism, and bittersweet motherhood. There’s a tragic undertone to this movie. In Cuarón’s camera, we can see Cleo and the family’s story at the forefront, but also the stories of the people and the nation surrounding them. The camera pans, which remain a favorite in Cuarón’s directorial arsenal, reveal the larger society that these people exist in, just as we see in the political protest-turned-riot that breaks out right before Cleo is about to give birth. We can also hear it in the sound mixing and the various spoken languages. In that way, Roma is shot almost like an epic, but still remains a deeply personal film.
My only quip with Roma is that I think Yalitza Aparicio should be given 1000% more praise for her work in this film. In her debut film, she delivered such an outstanding performance that was so naturalistic and emotional. And she deep-dived into the post-storm Pacific Ocean to shoot that iconic scene that Cuarón has already gotten immense acclaim for. The film is out now on Netflix, so there is no excuse for you to not witness Aparicio’s glory.