“Roma” is the kind of film cinephiles dream about, a return of sorts to Italian neorealism with its non-professional actors, real-life situations set in extraordinary times and simple shots utilizing film composition to illuminate themes. Choreographed in gorgeous black and white, “Roma” succeeds in being an experience in and of itself, a vital artifact of the human experience that feels as timely as it is historical.
Written, photographed and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the film tells the story of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the 1970s, a time of great social upheaval. Children Tono (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa), mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) live a stable existence as events falter around them. But the film really focuses on their housemaid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Distant from her own mother, she is both a member of the family and a subordinate. When her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) gets her pregnant, Cleo faces a long journey of finding some sort of peace and preparation for the future.
The film does a great job of illustrating different class structures and by extension a history of colonialism and societal power. Impoverished, undervalued youth rebel, as is the case with Fermin. The film doesn’t really illustrate what exactly it is Fermin and his gang want, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the dynamics of the situation that will always breed discontent. In addition, the powerlessness of women is a central subject of the film. Cleo and Sofia are abused by the men in their lives, with Antonio dumping Sofia for a mistress and Fermin abusing Cleo for getting pregnant. Sofia even tells Cleo that women are alone in this world, blamed for the problems of men and desperate to find comfort. These social dynamics are omnipresent throughout the story and give it added heft.
The film puts its subjects at a distance compositionally, with long shot pans and tilts utilized by the camera and lots of action happening in the frame. It acts as a static eye almost, making us feel as if we are peering into the lives of the story. Keeping this distance between us and the subjects prevents us from empathizing with them in the traditional way. While we feel for their stories, we also are put in the position of judging all the characters as if set on a wide canvas, an omnipresent god as it were.
Water is present throughout the story as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life. Cleo uses it to clean the driveway of the family, but is afraid to swim. When she is pregnant, she tries to drink some ale but it is pushed out of her hands. Only when a couple of children are close to drowning does Cleo venture against some turbulent waves and conquers the water. It is after this baptism of sorts that she reveals her sorrow and regret.
“Roma” has a distinct autobiographical feel. Cuaron himself was one of the boys in the story, the film dedicated to his nanny, Libo, and the viewer can sense that he loved her as a surrogate mother, sister and girlfriend. The movie feels dreamlike at times and frighteningly real at others. It’s both a testament to the power of memory and its ability to be distorted.
The ending of the film is vague, and you can’t help but wonder if things really are different at the end. Perhaps the family has recognized Cleo for the love they all share. Or perhaps she will always be their housekeeper first and family member second. Whatever interpretation is taken from “Roma”, one can’t help but stand back and see a film meticulously made, full of interesting ideas, underrepresented lives shown new light and a timeless tale meant to be experienced.