Review: Roma (2018)


Roma is a quiet powerhouse of a film. Rooted in the childhood experiences of director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma focuses on a year in the life of a domestic worker, Cleo (first time actor Yalitza Aparicio), and the family of children that she cares for. Shot in stunning black and white, and taking place in the upper-middle class Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, which lends the film its name, Roma is rooted in the specificity of its place and time, in this case 1970-1971. Lurking in the background, and occasionally spilling into the action of the film, are the numerous political and cultural upheavals of the era, notably the June 10, 1971 Corpus Christi student massacre that frames one of the films most striking and heartbreaking sequences. It is a portrait of the mounting tensions, both personal and societal, that confront the characters. And at the centre of it all lies Cleo, a saintly and yet deeply human focal point for this story.

Roma possesses a grand intimacy, if such a thing can exist; while very nearly restricting us entirely to Cleo’s subjective vantage point, it’s hardly a cloistered or limited film in scope. Instead, Roma feels big, even momentous. It is a portrait of the ending of things and the birth of new things, and how endings and beginnings can be intertwined.

Rather than begin with the long establishing shot, Roma opens with a stunning image of a puddle of water on tile. In reflection, an airplane glides overhead, signalling the distance between where we are and the world beyond in a visual microcosm. We discover that what we are seeing is Cleo washing dog shit off the courtyard of the home of the family of Señor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a medical doctor.

We soon observe, upon Antonio’s arrival, the nature of the family dynamic. His family greets him at the door of the courtyard carport, but their interactions lack warmth and depth. Señora Teresa (Marina de Tavira), Antonio’s wife, has Cleo and another servant, Adela (Nancy García), to help her care for their four children and look after their home in the trendy neighbourhood. Cleo and Adela are both indigenous Mixtec people, and they switch back and forth between the Mixtec language and Spanish. Their status is one of people in between cultures, which gives them a unique vantage point, one that the film tries to capture in its cinematography and narrative perspective.

Cuarón, known for his stunning use of mise-en-scene and cinematography in films like Children of Men and Gravity, here utilizes his gift for visual storytelling to construct the historical world of his childhood home with no less care or virtuosity than he does a dystopian future or outer space. Working without his longtime collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón acts as his own cinematographer, and his camera captures the family home and neighbourhood with a series of slow sweeping pans, allowing us to see Cleo and Adela going about their work and interacting with the children, whether doing laundry on the rooftop or feeding them breakfast. Cleo in particular forges a close bond with the children, not because Teresa is negligent or distant, but because it is her role to get them ready for school and feed them.

The daily routines that we partake in are very important in establishing the familial links that bind us together as individuals. Roma excels at showing the way that these links are shaped by labour, culture, politics, and language. In this way, Roma is indebted to the legacy of the neorealist directors of post-war Italy, who combined an examination of social and political problems with character’s personal dramas; consider the way that De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves sets dramatic challenges faced by Ricci and his son Bruno against social problems, such as unemployment. Like those films, Roma relies on a more naturalistic plotting, finding the drama in issues such as divorce or unexpected pregnancies; dilemmas and deadlines emerge out of everyday, and the narrative doesn’t always spell out what is going on directly. Consider the scene of Antonio’s leaving and Teresa’s grief, which is only clarified later when we discover he is leaving the family not to Quebec for a conference, but to be with his mistress. Later Cleo finds herself pregnant, but her boyfriend rejects her and the child, only later to be caught up with a paramilitary group exploiting the directionless anger of unemployed young men.

Nonetheless, the film, like its neorealist forebears, maintains a careful control of its composition and formal features, even if it is more naturalistic in its storytelling. The combined effect juxtaposes Cuarón’s sometimes stunning sequences and carefully choreographed camera movements against Roma’s sometimes heart-rending intimacy.

The aforementioned sequence of the Corpus Christi Massacre, in which leftist student protestors were attacked by the aforementioned government backed paramilitaries, the Halcones, is one such example of Roma’s narrative and visual strategies. When Cleo goes into labour in the store, we witness the attacks happening in the streets. Cuarón’s camera captures this by roving back and forth, never breaking our focus on Cleo’s personal drama and heartbreak. The wide compositions and depth of field allows us the viewer to track back and forth, without having our perspective shaped by the editing. It’s a freeing and exhilarating style that lends Roma its sense of capturing both the intimate details of life and the larger societal drama.

The film’s centrepiece, and most intense sequence, marries Cuarón’s signature long takes with Cleo’s personal subjectivity, as the scene of her giving birth is capture in a single take. Doctors and nurses move in and out of the scene, but Cleo remains the centre. The emotional toll the sequence takes on the viewer is not artificially heightened; the medical professionals all seem to be fairly nice people, they genuinely care for Cleo in her most vulnerable moments, but at the same time the film shows how they have a job to do

This sums up Roma’s thematic balancing act, and shows how narratively it functions as both Cuarón’s tribute to his own childhood caregiver at the same time it acts as an acknowledgement of his participation in a system of labour that perpetuated unequal structures, without being a self-flagellation. Perhaps this is why Roma’s strong class-consciousness has been less noted than other more overt political tales this past year. Roma is a film that understands class and the way that class structures even our most intimate relationships. Rather than seeing class antagonism purely in terms of individual animosity and malice, Roma posits such structures as being interwoven into our daily lives, through our relationships with our family and closest companions.

To sum it up, Roma portrays Teresa and her children as possessing genuine love for Cleo. But at the end of the day, she is still their servant. After a scene of intense emotional-bonding, Cleo picks up the laundry and returns to her duties. Roma would seem to suggest that sentiment and moral suasion are not enough to overcome the structures of power that unequally yoke us.

Roma then is impressive as a personal drama, as a historical portrait, and as a formal tour-de-force. Its formalism reinforces and underpins its thematic interests; it’s a rare unified vision of form and content that confirms Cuarón as one of the most talented directors working today, but also demonstrates a rare self-reflexivity and sensitivity. The grand intimacy of Roma is something special in the filmmaking landscape, a rare balancing act of storytelling that dazzles and edifies.

9 out of 10

Roma (Mexico/USA, 2018)

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón; starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Nancy García.