In preparation for the Oscars this coming Sunday, I finally sat down to watch Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Best-Picture-nominated Netflix original. The film focuses on a a wealthy Mexico City family and, specifically, on one of their two maids, Cleo. Amidst political chaos, the characters go through trials and trauma in their personal lives as well, and although an incredible film from Cuarón is no shock considering his past films, Roma is a uniquely well-crafted piece of art.
Because Y Tu Mama Tambien was released nearly two decades ago, it is easy to assume Cuaron has an extensive filmography. However, aside from the aforementioned, the only films of Cuarón’s in wide United States consciousness prior to Roma were 2006’s Children of Men and 2013’s Gravity. Roma, set in Mexico City, hails back to Cuarón’s country of origin. It follows Cleodegaria Gutiérrez and the family that she works as a maid for. The majority of the film is in Spanish, although at times its indigenous main character occasionally speaks in her native language.
The black and white film manages to be incredibly vibrant for all its lack of color– one is able to imagine the bright plumage of the birds that are shown, along with the elaborate clothing worn by many, the decor in the house, and the buildings on the streets. The film is able to ignite other senses as well– one can almost smell the cigarette and cigar smoke, the food, the smoke from a forest fire. One can feel the warm sun, the salty ocean waves. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about the film does it, and perhaps it is the simplicity, but it manages to be an incredibly somatic experience. Cuarón has managed to create the type of film that truly is an entire experience, showcasing skill unparalleled by many talented directors.
The film takes place in the early 1970s, amidst political turmoil, and the majority of it shows relative calm in the forefront, with chaos weaving in and out of the background. Early on, one of the four children in the family mentions that he saw someone gunned down by a soldier, but meanwhile he and his siblings play pretend games in which they themselves wield toy guns. A later scene focuses on Cleo’s stillness as an earthquake shakes the hospital she stands in. Unrest in her marital and familial life make it increasingly harder for matriarch Sofía to remain composed and pretend that she and her family are fine. As the film progresses, both personal and political chaos become increasingly harder to ignore, and begin to take the forefront, both in frame and in idea, culminating in a quietly chaotic and lovely climax.
The film broke my heart in a multitude of ways that I was not prepared for, but I have absolutely no regrets about watching it and, indeed, wonder why it took me so long to do so. It’s a film that encourages and rewards increasing vulnerability, both in its viewer and characters, even when that vulnerability leaves one open for a more raw form of pain.
One may wonder if the class dynamics in the film are handled as deftly as they could and should be, especially considering Alfonso Cuarón himself grew up in a wealthy family in Mexico City, and Cleo herself is based on Cuarón’s family maid. The casting of Yalitza Aparicio, herself an indigenous Mexican, is an encouraging one. The actress is phenomenal, absolutely deserving of her Academy Award nomination, and the presence of an indigenous actress in such a high-profile role is an encouraging one, as colorism and racism against indigenous people is incredibly widespread, and hopefully will pave the way for further roles for indigenous Mexican women. All that being said, one does at times feel like Cleo is pushed to the side in what is supposed to be her own story, and it’s not always easy to differentiate how much of her quietness is commentary and how much of it is a missed opportunity to delve into the character’s past and her motivations and desires.
All in all, Roma is an incredible piece, assisted by a talented cast and breathtaking cinematography. Its success and Best Picture nomination further cement Netflix as a distributor of quality films, and it will be interesting to see tomorrow whether or not one of Netflix’s original movies can nab the ultimate award.