As Good As You Have Heard It Is: “Roma”
By Melanie Juarez
No, it is not about Rome. Yes, I thought the same thing.
I first heard about “Roma” when I visited Mexico for the first time over winter break. My cousin mentioned that he might go see it the next day, to which his sister replied, “But it’s artistic, you have to appreciate the cinematography and whatever. And you’re dumb, so you won’t like it.”
That was enough to intrigue me.
“Roma” is the eighth feature film from Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican director most famous for “Gravity” and every British Literature student’s favorite movie, “Children of Men.” “Roma” is loosely based on Cuaron’s childhood in Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighborhood from which the film borrows its title. It focuses on Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, a maid working in the home of an upper middle class family. Like every other period film, the movie is set against the backdrop of social and political turmoil, in this case the Mexican Dirty War. “Roma” has been lauded by some critics as the best film of 2018 and has been nominated for an array of awards.
I did not know any of that when I sat down to watch “Roma.” Yet the opening credits -- an almost four-minute-long shot of mop water splashing against tiles -- made my stomach turn in a strange anticipation.
There is not much to spoil in terms of the plot; Cleo is a live-in maid in the home of Sofia and Antonio (played by Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga, respectively). She cleans and cooks for the couple, their four children, and Sofia’s mother-in-law alongside Adela, another maid. Cleo plays an integral emotional role in the family, calmly working through the inevitable squabbles of family life. My favorite of these comes very early on in the film; the youngest brother, Toño, asks where their father is going for his business trip and his mother replies that he is going to Quebec. Paco, the middle son, who is based on Cuaron himself, asks “Where’s that?” to which all his siblings cry, “Canada, stupid!”
The film then follows Cleo and the family through some episodes of daily life: watching evening TV shows, stretching before bed with Adela, and meeting up with Cleo’s boyfriend. There are hints of tension in Sofia and Antonio’s marriage. Eventually, Cleo discovers that she is pregnant but her boyfriend abandons her. When the family visits a ranch house on New Years, there is a strange martial arts lesson from Latin Lover, Cleo’s baby is stillborn, Sofia takes the family to the coast to announce she and Antonio have separated, and in the end, Cleo saves two of the children from drowning. Perhaps my cousin was right. A person who prefers action and explosions might not like this film. But the plot is not what makes this film special. There is something magical and profoundly emotional about the dialogue, the shots, the black-and-white, the feelings it stirs in its audience.
When I watched the film with my mother, she constantly interrupted it with laughter, excitedly telling me that that was exactly how the bands marched in the street. Exactly the same show she watched with her family each night. Exactly how they parked their cars. (Yikes.) There is nothing contrived about the way the children tease each other, or about the stress Sofia crumbles under. In her acting debut, Aparicio portrays Cleo with grace and deft. Music and cultural references are expertly embedded into the painstakingly recreated sets. It is ravishingly genuine.
And as many, many critics have said, “Roma” is a startlingly intimate portrait of domestic life in 1970s Mexico. But “Roma” is also a skillful portrayal of class inequality and political turmoil. The audience watches “gringos” throw a swanky party in luxurious house, yet in the same breathe watches an underground party thrown by indigenous laborers in a small basement, watches Cleo’s small village boyfriend takes up arms against the government with his friends, and watches Antonio as a doctor in the hospital that treats the students injured in that very protest.
“Roma” looks at society and class in a manner unmarred by exaggeration or pity. It looks at family in a manner unmarred by melodrama, and portrays one woman’s life in a manner that is loving and deeply touching.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Written By: Alfonso Cuaron
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2018
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira
Duration: 135 minutes