I really wanted to watch this movie knowing as little as possible. Imagine Alfonso Cuarón going for a film in which he decides to use no professional actors, set it in the Mexico of his infancy, in authentic Spanish and showcase the everyday life of a woman working as a house maid for a middle class family. And yet, in doing so he takes some of us back in time to their Latino-American neighbourhood of the late seventies. The result is nothing short of impressive.
And yet, it does seem that director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has several audiences to choose from. One audience that grew up in similar neighbourhoods that belong to the same generation, one that is unfamiliar with the culture but can still somewhat relate to the time period, one that is younger but has the cultural familiarity and finally one that might not relate at all. I’d dare say even then, they can identify the older traits from their parents and grandparents. Roma doesn’t take place in Mars, you will find something relatable nonetheless.
The film is told mainly from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). She’s employed as a maid and nanny for a middle-class family. The husband is often taking long trips out of the country. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is usually left to run things. When Sofia’s husband decides not to come back home and Cleo’s boyfriend deserts her after she finds out she’s pregnant, the lives of both women are affected. I already feel I’ve said too much here.
The cinematography of this film is gorgeous. It is filmed in black and white digital 65. The sound is amazing and it is beautifully used to enhance and expand the world beyond the screen. The environment of each scene has background noises of street vendors and neighbourhood noises in accordance to the region and time. Whistles, calls, marching bands, protests, riots, they’re all world building techniques that firmly plant Roma within the city of Mexico, D.F. of the 70’s.
The realism of the plot is brutally honest. Cleo is expected to follow orders. She’s employed to serve the family. The relationship is strained when something around the house is not up to her employer’s standards. Sofia shows she can be understanding on some situations but rather distant in others. The children that Cleo helps raise are closer to real life than any other movie I’ve seen. They can be nice and adorable to Cleo, get her in trouble or be blissfully cruel to her in that way that children can be.
The culture of the middle-upper class families with a lot of children that employ people in the lower class as in-house maids is a practice that might feel alien to a lot of first-world audiences. This is a financial arrangement, albeit not a regular one but a very common practice in Mexico as well as Central and South America. Whether or not it’s a fair system or it should be abolished altogether, is something of a different dissertation. I will state this: the economic reality of the third world is that you get a job where you can find it. Pride takes a backseat to survival by any means necessary.
Extremely recommended. Watch this, whoever you are. There’s sights and sounds that will transport audiences from that era to their own childhoods and family homes. The story of Cleo is so subtle, intense and deeply human that there’s a good chance it will make you cry before the film is over. The social, economic and ethnic realities presented can be cruel and unfair, but the film is not here to solve them – just present them to you. The storytelling is engaging and realistic. I appreciated the depiction of everyday life but audiences used to persistent drama/action might find it dull at times. I was never bored, but then again I could be biased. It’s one of those films that I want to keep watching even past its runtime and my bedtime.
That will do for now.