Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The introductory shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is minimal yet ostentatious. The frame is fixed on a cobble stone street as water sloshes back and forth, creating a mirror which captures a plane flying overhead. As the camera tilts upward revealing a maid cleaning dog feces off the driveway, the image becomes a microcosm of the ways in which the film will straddle the line between authenticity and wistful impression. It’s the kind of opening salvo only a filmmaker of Cuarón’s caliber could pull off, and yet it emphasizes his tendency toward affected formalism. In films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón proved his ability to stage mind-boggling tracking shots and uninterrupted long takes, and Roma is filled with this kind of showboating, albeit in a more minor key.
The story here concerns the maid from the opening image, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a mysterious man who is constantly away from home. The man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children live in luxury, but the absence of the patriarch haunts nearly every scene. Cuarón frames the narrative through the perspective of Cleo, though we do get a sense of the family’s point of view, which is further complicated by the film’s detached aesthetic. Cleo is often dwarfed in compositions, looking insignificant amongst the spiraling staircases of the family home, and in one particular shot, appearing as a tiny speck in the frame while watching a martial arts training session.
Cleo is basically a surrogate mother for the children, and the performance of first time actor Aparicio is a tremendous feat of natural mannerism, facial expression, and gesture. When she has to deliver more emotionally fraught scenes late in the film, she is also fully believable, but Cuarón thankfully doesn’t overburden her with melodramatic hysterics. Instead, Cleo represents a somewhat angelic symbol of servitude and class division, which Cuarón often captures through stunning visuals; such as one key shot where the camera floats upwards revealing a throng of maids hanging clothes on rooftops of lavish homes stretching far into the distance.
There’s melodramatic elements to Roma, including familial infidelity, but Cuarón’s studied aesthetic approach keeps sentimentality at bay. The formal tics on display, such as how the camera moves slowly across rooms in rigid pans, is almost comical, but perhaps that’s partially the point. Even though the film gets all the period appropriate details right— the 1970s clothing, home decor, architecture, bustling Mexico City streets—the way the camera takes everything in feels somehow removed from reality. The crisp black and white cinematography is gorgeous, but it’s also the vision of someone accessing their memories and presenting an evocative version of these recollections. This makes Cleo’s station in life all the more helpless, as if she’s not fully in control of her own story. In this way, Roma can be read as an auto-critique in which Cuarón is questioning his own privilege while also paying tribute to the woman who raised him.
Without an auteurist reading where Cuarón is infiltrating Cleo’s story in order to comment on his own guilt, Roma might play as a film where the main character is a hollow cipher. The picture lacks a sense of spontaneity and lived-in authenticity, even as all the visual details ring true. This push and pull between honoring this woman and making her into an angelic symbol creates a fascinating dynamic, foregrounded by an aesthetic which tries to overcompensate for Cleo’s lack of an inner life. However, the film works as well as it does because of Aparicio’s unforced truthfulness. Despite Cuarón’s ornate precision, Aparicio grounds everything. She is the voice worth listening to. Hers is the life worth caring about.