There are periods in history that scar societies and moments in life that transform us as individuals.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s monotone meditation on memory is a difficult film to parse.
Set in the titular Mexico City neighborhood in the turbulent early 1970s, Roma is a semi-autobiographical story of a well-off family in crisis, told from the constrained point of view of their live-in maid, Cleodegaria ‘Cleo’ Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio, making her screen debut).
The family is fracturing. Father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, has left his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) for his mistress — a fact she tries to keep from their passel of young children. Meanwhile, Cleo has problems of her own — she’s fallen pregnant to her capricious boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who promptly disappears on hearing the news from her during a date. Cleo frets that her pregnancy will get her fired. Sofía tries to maintain a sense of normality and continuity for her children while the family’s money dwindles in Antonio’s absence. Around them, political upheaval rocks Mexico, with violent riots in the streets an ever-more-frequent occurrence.
On a surface read, Roma comes across as an exercise in nostalgia — and as we all know, nostalgia is poison. Cuarón’s recreation of the Mexico City of his childhood is painstaking, and it is a literal recreation — the director had a huge chunk of the city built on a backlot. At times the film strains to contain all the historical (and seemingly biographical) elements that it encompasses, with loosely connected side-trips here and there presumably to broaden its take on the lives lived in the period and an odd subplot about a far-right militia being groomed to create anarchy in the streets.
At a guess, these elements speak more loudly, or at least more clearly, to a Mexican audience, and that’s fine — Cuarón is under no obligation to dumb things down for or hold the hands of Anglophone, non-Mexican audiences, and nor should he be. Still, given that Roma is also an obliquely told story, which gives up its secrets and relationship dynamics reluctantly, it can be a difficult slog.
Yet also a rewarding one — the film sings in the subtext, and Cuarón deftly and repeatedly plays on expectations and hopes against the rather more grim realities depicted on the screen. It’s a dense text, but the theme that stands out the most for me is class; in the milieu presented, social position trumps all. Several times we’re presented with moments of acceptance, peace, and affection between Cleo and the family she works for — the children love her, Sofía confides in her, grandmother Teresa (Verónica García) frets over her pregnancy — but these brief interludes are punctuated with requests to fetch drinks, fix meals, do laundry, underlining Cleo’s lesser status. If the family loves her, they love her like a pet — her status is that of something included in the household, but not on an equal footing.
We’re made complicit in this. Cuarón flatly denies us any access to Cleo’s inner life, and she has no access to that of the other characters. We’re forced to try and empathize from surface cues and from context, which might be too big a request for some viewers (not a dig — it was nearly too big a request for me. It took a subsequent close viewing to really settle my thoughts on this one). The film challenges the viewer to look closer, its luxuriant, at times almost precious black and white cinematography inviting us in, while its sparse, elliptical script and taciturn central character frustrate our expectations of revelation.
That’s deliberate, and thematically on point — moments of connection are rare in Roma and governed by larger, dispassionate forces — wealth, class, and political unrest. Sofía has the odd empathetic interlude with Cleo, such as when she drunkenly confides that Antonio has left her and that the extended business trip story she’s been feeding the children is a confection. Sofía laments that women are always left to bear the brunt of men’s callousness, and are ultimately left to struggle on alone. It’s a moment of solidarity, but it’s brief — sober, Sofía never mentions it again, while Cleo would never dream of it. They may both be women, and may’ve both been hard done by the men in their lives, but at the end of the day, the status quo must be maintained.
It’s this hardnosed acceptance in the inflexibility of these social structures that carries Roma. It’s a beautiful film, but ultimately a somewhat cynical and dispassionate one — or rather, it is suspicious of passion. Towards the end, the children of the family profess their love for Cleo, but they are too young, and they benefit too much from her current position to challenge the assumptions that hold her where she is. Cuarón, peering back at his own childhood (but cannily not inserting a surrogate of himself into the proceedings) eschews rose-colored glasses to look, clear-eyed and unsentimental, at his formative years. Yes, there’s a sense of the wonder and joys of being young, the strangeness and mystery of living, coddled and protected, in a world whose dangers and contradictions will only gradually become apparent as you age. But there’s also, in Cuarón’s astute directorial choices, an acknowledgment of the unfairness, the rigid economic and social disparities that enabled him to have the childhood he had.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson