The only thing I can imagine anyone offering in complaint about Roma is that the movie delivers an uncomplicated depiction of a secular saint. That’s true, to an extent, and yet it’s also what I love about this full-hearted, exquisitely crafted, deeply grateful film.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men), Roma is a fictionalized ode to the domestic worker who cared for Cuaron and his siblings in Mexico City in the early 1970s (the credits dedicate the movie to “Libo,” or Liboria Rodriguez). Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actor, plays Cleo, an indigenous Mixtec woman who lives in a tiny apartment behind the family’s main house with her fellow worker, Adela (Nancy Garcia). Most of her time is spent in their home, waking the children up, preparing their meals, doing the laundry, cleaning, putting the kids to bed. The family consists of a father (Fernando Grediaga), a mother (Marina de Tavira), and four kids, as well as a grandmother (Veronica Garcia). It’s Cleo, we eventually learn, who is the glue.
The first shot of the film sets the tone. We look down on a tile floor from overhead, the sounds of domestic work (running water, scrubbing brushes) in the background. Suddenly a rush of soapy water floods over the tiles, its silvery sheen reflecting an opening in the roof overhead. A moment ago we were looking at dirty tile; now, as we hear Cleo’s mop swishing beyond the frame, the open sky magically appears before our eyes. Throughout Roma, the camera (Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer) encourages us to pause, look closely, and consider the sort of chores we’d normally rush through (or pass on to others). Simultaneously elegant, mundane, and mesmerizing, the movie suggests that in these activities, strange and beautiful miracles are being performed. And in some of the film’s quiet visual asides—as when one of the boys instinctively puts his arm around Cleo while the family is watching television—those miracles are acknowledged with a deep, abiding faith.
Cuaron employs another effective technique throughout Roma: a slow, nearly 360-degree pan around a room. One such shot takes place on the family’s flat rooftop, where Cleo and young Pepe (Marco Graf), who has been running around with his older brother, lie on their backs to rest. As she takes this brief moment of respite, the camera pans along the long line of laundry she has recently hung to dry, then to the basket where more awaits. Later, a similar rotating shot takes in the entire second floor of the home, passing the doors of cluttered rooms. It takes a camera movement like this to capture the full, rich scope of a busy young family’s life.
Not that this is an idyllic home. There are moments—as when Sofia gives her husband an angry, desperate kiss on the street as he leaves for a business trip—that suggest there is more going on than the rotating camera can capture. Often Cuaron uses the chaos of Mexico City’s streets to introduce a sense of unease, as when a marching band comes blaring past the family home or, later, when Cleo leaves a movie theater in distress and gets lost in a cacophony of street salesmen. There are also a series of masterful tracking shots along these busy streets, which capture all sorts of intricately choreographed and perfectly timed activity in the shops and intersections that the characters pass. Roma always gives us a sense of a particular family that is part of a larger, but still particular, society. And then the movie expands even beyond that. Two bravura sequences—one involving an earthquake and another a forest fire—cause the film to both expand and retract as we realize that the daily, domestic ripples we’ve been tracing may seem commonplace and ordinary, but to this family, they’re earth-shattering.
It’s Cleo, we eventually learn, who is the glue.
Even in these bigger moments, Roma remains close to Cleo. It’s always her movie. Cuaron made the crucial decision to give Cleo her own inner life, separate from the family. We see her and Adela teasing each other in their apartment and doing little evening exercises. Adela talks Cleo into going on a double date with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an earnest young man who—in a brief and tender love scene—gives a nude demonstration of the martial-arts moves he’s learned, using a shower-curtain rod as a weapon. It’s both funny and sweet, and elicits a smile from Cleo that could crumble a mountain.
That smile is reason alone to see Roma, so it’s admirable that Aparicio shows restraint in unleashing it. Indeed, for a first-time actor she has great range, especially as Cleo’s story becomes more complicated. In a nervous scene with a doctor, she manages a poignant reticence; her scenes with de Tavira, as the mother, are full of nuance, as both women intuitively commiserate over the disappointments of men (their own class and cultural differences prevent them from explicitly discussing such things). And then there is the film’s wrenching climax, set on a beach. I won’t spoil the details, but suffice it to say that all that Roma has been building toward would collapse if Aparicio isn’t believable in that instant. And she’s crushingly authentic. I can’t think of another 2018 performance that is as crucial to its movie, except perhaps Ethan Hawke as the unhinged pastor of First Reformed.
That beach sequence has two purposes: it serves as Cleo’s canonization as a secular saint, while also offering her a very human moment of confession. (I won’t spoil that either.) She’s angelic, even as she’s falling back to earth. In the end, then, Roma isn’t as idealized of a portrait as we might think. Yes, the movie has something of a blinkered vantage point on the past, and in a way exists to preserve it. (Did I mention that it’s filmed in luxurious black and white?) Yet ultimately this is the work of an adult remembering someone from his turbulent youth and glorifying her as a way of saying thanks. Note that the last shot even involves ascension. Rather than a pandering portrait, Roma is a gift. To Liboria Rodriguez, and to us.