At its very core, Roma is a simple film. The film follows the life of a house worker named Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, who is employed by a middle class family living in the suburb of Roma in Mexico City. Set in the early seventies, the narrative portrays an honest depiction of the life of a woman working a domestic job that is commonly frowned upon during a politically challenging time in Mexican history.
Yet, as a “servant,” Cleo experiences the realities of life just as vividly as those she works for. Through the trials of her experiences, audiences are granted a distinct view of Mexico and the culture that it cultivates within its borders. Influenced by director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood, Roma is a biographical ode to the distinct love felt both for and in Mexico.
Compared to the very tense nature of Cuaron’s directorial past, Roma unfolds with ease. The film has received criticism for being weak in narrative and “slow.” One can understand why some critics are disappointed in Roma. If this film were to be measured up to Gravity (2013), Cuaron’s jab at sci-fi suspense, or Children of Men (2006), his dystopian thriller hit, ideally Roma would fall short in thrills and action.
In a sense, by choosing to unveil the narrative at a dull pace, Cuaron took the opportunity to see if audiences would pay attention to what he has to say without having to keep them entertained with bombs, blood, expensive animation, and color.
The most notable aspect of this film is that it is in black and white. When faced to decide how he was going to shoot the film, Cuaron decided that he wanted to recreate a grain-less and sharp image of his childhood memories. The combination of modern definitive quality provided by a digital medium (filmed with the Alexa 65) along with the nostalgic mood that the monochromatic filter generates, allowed a picture that provoked the eyes to wander around all four corners of the screen.
Mexico is known for being colorful, yet without color, the beauty of this country still prevails on film. Also, the monochromatic look of the film imitates how humans perceive memory. When we remember our past, we remember what was and what wasn’t without great attention to details, including the color of things. Cuaron wanted the film to focus more on the emotion of his memories and the love he has for his childhood nanny, his family, and his country, rather than impress everyone with colorful aesthetics.
The attention of this film relies solely on the narrative, and that is where we find the details of Cuaron’s craft. There is much use of symbolism and foreshadowing. At the beginning of the film, Cleo learns that she is pregnant. When she tells her boyfriend, he abandons her in the movie theatre. As she sits outside of the theater expecting his return, a sales man is selling the infamous dead dancing man (a famous small wooden doll sold throughout Mexico, which one can make dance and die at will).
After a consultation confirming her pregnancy, Cleo experiences an earthquake while she is looking at the newborn babies in the hospital, a piece of debris falls on an incubator that kills the newborn inside. At a New Year’s Eve party, a fellow worker toasts health to Cleo’s baby, then as Cleo is about to drink, she gets pushed and her drink shatters on the floor. As the film progresses, small incidents foreshadow the fate of Cleo’s baby, who is stillborn.
Everything Cleo experiences, she experiences while working and living with a middle class family. Along with her troubles, she also witnesses the separation of the parents and how the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), handles being left with the children and the home. We see how integrated and essential Cleo is to the family. Cleo confides in Sofia that she is pregnant, while she fears that Sofia will fire her. Instead Sofia takes her to get checked just to make sure the baby is okay.
Cleo has an incredibly loving relationship with each child, and they never disrespect her or disregard her. When Cleo suffers her miscarriage, Sofia decides to take the children to the beach and brings Cleo along because she is part of the family. During the trip Sofia unveils to the children that their father left them, but that she will care for them and that they are all going to be okay.
“We are alone, no matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” Sofia drunkenly tells pregnant Cleo halfway through the film. That quote is the prevailing theme of this entire work of art. I’m not sure if it was Cuaron’s intention to make a film that truly captures the strong nature of Mexican women, but that’s what he did.
Men abandoned both of the women, and both found the strength to carry on. Following the tragedy of Cleo’s baby, the film ends on an optimistic note, because no matter what happens to us girls, nosotras chingonas, we find it in us to carry on and welcome the wonders of life. Cuaron also reiterates the foundation of Mexican love, which is the value and importance of family. Coming from a Mexican family, and listening to friends that are like me, and who some also had nannies, there is nothing more solid to us than family, and that is the heart of Mexico and Roma.
There are so many other aspects of this film that contributes to its excellence. I personally am a very big fan of the camera movements, and there are many scenes that left me in awe. This film is important for so many reasons that would take me a whole other essay to elaborate on. The star of the movie is a Mextec indigenous woman, who is pioneering an incredible representation of the diverse nature of Mexican women in cinema. The director is Mexican born, which, being Mexican myself, is incredibly exciting to see. Audiences around the world are being exposed to a natural depiction of Mexico and the values we hold dear. Roma deserves all the praise it is receiving.
By Stephanie Hinojosa