A maid in 1970's Mexico experiences personal and political upheaval.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
Much like Cuaron’s last film, Gravity, Roma is a technical marvel, albeit one on a different level. There are layers of sound and visuals in each scene, many of which play out in unbroken takes, a Cuaron staple. The noise of the city or the countryside and the depth of the frame are considered to the nth degree, such that repeat viewings surely uncover new wrinkles and a deeper appreciation of all the work that went into capturing this period of time. Cuaron is not only the director and writer, but he also shot and edited the film (along with Adam Gough), and he’s clearly learned a great deal from his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the best in the industry. The film contains so many perfect, evocative frames. The tangled mess of bodies on the beach post-rescue is a painting that could find a place in the Louvre, powerful even stripped of context and backstory.
The act of making the minutely-considered Roma must have been a transporting experience for Cuaron. I haven’t read any interviews with him about the production, but I would not be the least bit surprised if he played guns on the roof of his home with a brother and then relaxing on the roof after with his family maid, lying on their backs head to head, the top of their skulls barely touching as they took in the noise of the city. Again, this is a single lived-in moment in a film that is packed with them.
Cuaron probably didn’t spend as much time as a young woman of indigenous descent, and the scenes with Cleo lack the gentle power of the family scenes. This is certainly not a knock on the marvelous Aparicio, a first-time, untrained actor with none of the kind of weaknesses that go along with that kind of background. The scenes that are solely about Cleo, which make up maybe a quarter to a half of the film, just don’t elevate to the level as the family scenes. Diversity-wise, good on Cuaron for not making Roma through the eyes of the oldest son as he realizes his family is falling apart. That’s an easily imaginable film and one that exists many times over, but it also might have been the one to most consistently resonate.
Every year, there’s a handful of female-led films about the uselessness of the men in their lives. Tully, Widows, I Tonya, and especially Elle all jump out as recent examples and Roma can join their ranks. As idyllic as the above fake gunplay scene or the family TV watching scene is, it’s not enough for Antonio, who refuses to even financially support his family once he makes the decision to leave. Cuaron includes a fitting metaphor about his existence in that he takes the bookshelves but leaves the books. The support is gone, but the knowledge stays. Fermin is even worse, abandoning Cleo in the middle of a theater at the first mention of her pregnancy, then threatening her when she tracks him down, and holding a gun on her in their last meeting. Obsessed with the performative masculinity of martial arts and the groupthink of his paramilitary group, the stain on his ego is Cleo and he is shown to seriously consider killing her during the riots.
The state subs in as another useless patriarchal figure shirking its responsibilities, capable of far more harm than Antonio or Fermin. The riots are provoked by Los Halcones, a US-backed group established to work as strike breakers against student demonstrations and operating with the tacit permission of the Mexican police who stand by as civilians are murdered. Sidebar, but I was instantly brought back to the Act of Killing, a must-watch documentary that examines a similar dynamic in the Indonesia of a few years prior. Sidebar over. In Roma, the students are demonstrating due to, among other things, government seizures of peasant land, with Cleo’s village one of many victims in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nugget of information. These seizures deprive the working poor of stable income and directly lead to the drug and migration problems that Mexico continues to deal with. Deeper reading about this period of Mexican history reveals a policy of keeping violence in the countryside as much as possible, out of sight of the wealthier and therefore more powerful urban populace. Cleo never mentions her village’s fate to the family, and it’s doubtful if anything would be done if she did. Her relatives probably won’t find purchase in Cleo’s small apartment.
Roma begins with waves of water moving across a garage floor, a peaceful intro to an eventful film. When Cuaron finally pans up, we see that Cleo’s cleaning because of all the dog crap, but the knowledge of the gross reason for those waves doesn’t remove the pleasure of listening to the water makes its way across the floor. That Cuaron can even find beauty in the removal of feces is truly something. Roma has my utmost admiration as a piece of you-are-there cinema and as the anthropological capturing of a piece of history. I wish I could say I loved it because it’s deserving of love, but like the awful Antonio, I can’t fake it if I don’t feel it. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the oceanside emotional climax coming from a mile away. B+