We viewers are dropped into Roma, a middle class neighborhood in Mexico City. It’s 1970 and young village girl Cleo is finding her way as a servant in the beleaguered household of a large and noisy family.
First time actress Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo. Her broad cheekbones harken back to strength and power from Maya or Inca DNA. Her performance is nuanced and energetic. Her youthful energy is important, because she and her friend Adela (Nancy García García) do everything for the family. They cook, wait on people, clean, wash clothes, care for the children and the dog, put everyone to bed at night and turn out the lights before they can rest themselves.
In Cleo’s limited time off she gets in trouble with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). She’s pregnant. To her credit, Cleo’s boss Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) takes good care of Cleo when she learns what’s happening.
Cleo and Sra. Sofia live parallel lives. Fermin runs away from Cleo. Sra. Sofia’s husband abandons the family and sends back no money for their care. Sofia tells Cleo, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”
Yet life carries on in the most mundane of ways. The children must be read to, meals must be prepared, laundry must be done.
Cleo is shopping for a crib with Sra. Teresa (Verónica García), the family grandmother, when a riot breaks out. They watch from inside the store. Men with guns rush through the store. One of them is Fermin. At that moment, Cleo begins labor. She must be rushed to the hospital.
In the hospital, multiple events and conversations flow like a library full of stories around Cleo until it’s finally just her in a single room with a doctor and a nurse. What happens is heartbreaking. It’s equally heartbreaking later when Cleo opens up with her feelings about it.
Cleo’s trip to the hospital during a traffic snarling riot is harrowing. Cleo, who can’t swim, has to wade into the ocean to save the two foolish children in her care who have gone out too far. Such exciting scenes among the mundanity of everyday living are rare.
At the end of the 2 hours and 15 minutes the film lasts, life is a lot like life at the beginning. Yes, Cleo has to deal with something big. Yes, Sra. Sofia has to get a job. But the servants and the family are still carrying on in much the same way. Mexico City is still swirling around them in noisy excitement, deadly riots, quiet moments, and love and kindness at the end of the day.
Is Roma a masterpiece?
Is Roma the masterpiece everyone says it is? I do not know. What I do know is that it carries you away to a time and place that you may never have been and leaves you knowing what it was like.
Critics rave about director Alfonso Cuarón and his vision for Roma. Here’s my inexpert take on his directing. One of the things he does is move the camera off to a distance to cram the frame with more than one story. Above, we are with Cleo as she crosses a muddy plain in search of the training field where Fermin learns martial arts. But in the center of the frame, there’s the kid walking with a bucket on his head. There’s the man hauling water, and there’s the background image of squalor and poverty to process while Cleo walks. Almost every scene is similarly filled.
The other thing Alfonso Cuarón does repeatedly is focus on the mundane at great length. The water seeping out of a drain while Cleo scrubs the laundry by hand, the tiles on the patio that Cleo cleans of doggie doo each day, the gates at the front entrance, the horrible drum and bugle corps that marches past every morning, a broken cup. He wants you to notice the details, be in that place, live in that moment. He forces you to be there.
The clutter on the table at a Christmas party the family attends is an example. Cuarón focuses the camera on it – this teeming mess of life – as if it will explain everything. And in a way it does. The insistence on details is why the movie runs for 2 hours and 15 minutes. If Cuarón ever heard Alfred Hitchock’s maxim, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” he ignores it purposefully.
Roma is now streaming on Netflix. Whether it is or is not a masterpiece, it’s worth seeing. Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio have given us a person and a place we won’t soon forget.
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