It’s a struggle to find words that do Roma justice.
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and most masterful film contains multitudes, masked by a black-and-white simplicity that makes each moment feel both timeless and brand new. And as if that were not enough to make it a remarkable film, similar paradoxes abound. Roma is a period piece unanchored from history. It’s memory reinterpreted through someone else’s perspective. It’s virtually plotless yet totally engrossing. It’s gentle and loving, honest and tragic. It’s the most cinematic and beautiful film of the year, available to most only by way of Netflix and screens that get smaller from one room in your home to the next.
Thankfully, having been lucky enough to see it both ways, I’m happy to report that watching Roma from home does not lessen its power, and debates regarding the best way to view it are better left to purists. Cuarón’s quiet portrait of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in nanny and housekeeper to a middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s, will cut through the noise of modern life no matter how or where you watch this movie.
Which isn’t to say that this movie is inherently watchable, exactly. From the moment it begins, colorless and ambient, it requires a sort of rewiring of your brain to accommodate the deliberate patience with which Cuarón takes us through Cleo’s daily life. There is no exposition to orient us in time or, beyond the title, even in a particular place. Roma requires your full attention, because it does not hold your hand. It merely guides you alongside Cleo, asking you to empathize with her as you probably never would if you met or employed someone like her in real life.
And what a full, complete life Cleo has, with details that linger. Mixtec lullabies for the children, giggles and exercises in the dark with the family’s other maid, a dog that never seems to stop pooping — these are among the standout moments in the home where Cleo lives and works as, behind closed doors, her employers’ marriage falls apart. What would be the primary plot in any other movie becomes secondary in this one, because Sofia (Marina de Tevira) and Doctor Antonio’s (Fernando Grediaga) marriage is not really a part of Cleo’s life. It’s just something she observes.
Instead of the family drama we might expect, Cuarón gives us a journey through a time of great personal uncertainty for Cleo, as an unexpected pregnancy threatens her life in Roma. Except, it doesn’t. This isn’t that kind of movie, either. Cleo’s employer supports her from the moment she confesses her situation, barely able to get the words out, and ensures that she receives the best care possible. The only thing that hovers over Cleo is that the baby’s father, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has abandoned her, and even that abandonment plays out contrary to our expectations.
Fermín is interesting, though not on his own merits. Cuarón packs so much into this seemingly charming young man and his passionate insistence that martial arts saved him from an early death in the slums. We only see glimpses of Fermín through Cleo, but those glimpses are telling. At first, his devotion to martial arts seems patently absurd, but harmless nevertheless. Neither Cleo nor the audience realize for some time that the instruction he’s been receiving is not entirely what it seems. Overseen by an American, a Korean and a charismatic TV personality in a rural outcropping of Mexico City, Fermín’s training alongside hundreds of other driftless young men crosses the line from peculiar to foreboding without fanfare. We, like Cleo, miss the signs until it’s too late.
It is in this way, subtly and almost quotidian, that the world outside Cleo’s immediate vicinity is revealed to us. Indeed, in another writer-director’s hands, the political upheaval of Mexico in 1971, with its governmental land grabs from poor villagers, violent student protests, and insidious meddling from United States intelligence services, could be yet another focus of the film, but in Cuarón’s, it is as much set dressing as the vendors loudly hawking toys and trinkets outside a local movie theater. It’s all in the background, from Echevarría posters lining the streets to hometown gossip traded in the kitchen, until the precise moment when Cleo walks into a page from history, and she experiences firsthand the emotional toll of such chaotic brutality. We live through the Corpus Christi massacre as only Cleo does, and somehow that makes it all the more horrifying. All the more confusing. All the more senseless.
I should warn you here: Cleo’s pregnancy does not end happily. Throughout, however, Cuarón prepares you for the worst with deft omens that, like hindsight, clarify upon reflection. A plane in a nosedive on the screen behind Cleo as she tells Fermín she’s pregnant. An earthquake that threatens a nursery of newborns as Cleo looks in on them, helpless. A shattered glass after a toast to her baby’s health. These are Cuarón’s drops of blood in the snow, pure and folkloric as they presage tragedy.
And through it all, Cleo is quiet. Though she does speak, we never quite know what she’s thinking or how she feels about the direction her life has taken until the emotional climax of the film. Like 2016’s Moonlight, it rests on one sentence, spoken aloud when Cleo is at her most vulnerable but also when she is surrounded by the most love. It is a sequence that will simultaneously break your heart and make you realize that, even at your most empathetic, you can never really know how any one person feels. It is a sequence that will outshine practically any other from this year’s crop of awards season movies. It’s truly beautiful.
There is so much more about Roma to think about and discuss — the class and ethnic divides in modern Mexico, the survival of women in the face of masculine cowardice, the liminal space occupied by beloved servants in a well-to-do family — but it’s too much for one review, and through it all is Cleo. Cleo, whom Cuarón based on his own nanny, Libo, and whom he clearly loves. Cleo, the heart and soul of Roma.
It’s a struggle to find words to do her justice. It is a gift that Cuarón, a master of his craft, never really needs them.