Roma is a semi-biographical story based on Cuarón’s childhood maid; the life she led and the devotion she held to his family. Roma follows the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid living in 1970’s Mexico City, under the roof of an upper-middle class Mexican family. Cleo goes about her daily duties, scrubbing the tiles, cooking the dinner, and putting the children to bed – the family consists of 4 children, a mother and father, a grandmother, and another maid.
Roma embarks on an exploratory journey into the life of the help, from the intimate perspective of Cuarón’s childhood memories. For Cuarón this film is a vessel to express what his caregiver meant to him, to flesh out the place in which she stood within his family and within his heart.
We as the audience follow Cleo side by side, experiencing a snippet of her life and the family she cares for. We bear witness to Cleo and the family suffering through hard times as they clamber to navigate the obstacles thrown at them. Poverty, crime, and political unrest infest their city — though Cuarón pays careful attention to keep this as nothing but background noise for these characters, as it only partially intervenes in their day to day lives. Particular attention was paid toward Sofia, the mother and matriarch of the family. She and Cleo hold an unspoken bond, as they both face large upheavals in their lives due to the failure of the people around them.
This film contains a variety of iconic themes that are distinctly Cuarón, such as birth and death, as well as rebirth and redemption. Cuarón is a master of seeding these subtle messages into his films without disrupting flow or tone. A shot of a cup falling and shattering may seem trivial, but with Cuarón you can feel the gravity of its significance. Cuarón keeps the camera lingering on these moments for just that second longer so you can draw meaning. You can also see many instances of disastrous events occurring throughout the film, these sequences reflect many different things, whether it is turmoil within Cleo, a disruption within the family, or a foreshadowing of a fated tragedy to come. These messages are not thrust directly into your face, but rather, they all work organically and the film can be seamlessly enjoyed without reading into them.
Cleo’s position in the family is also explored vigorously; how the family perceive her is a consistently revisited theme. We’re posed a dilemma; is Cleo a friend, part of the family, or just an employee? Her position is unclear, and Cuarón dissects that. We see an abundance of dogs throughout the film, generally seen side by side with maids; reflecting a sense of loyalty, companionship, devotion, and perhaps pointing toward a separation of status. Cuarón draws the parallels between maids and dogs to explore what it truly means to be part of a family, how they’re different and how they’re viewed. Quite a harsh comparison, but when reflected upon, makes sense.
Roma is shown nakedly in a striking 65mm monochromatic black and white format. This metallic tone provides a rich and deep beauty to the film; it felt as if I saw it in full colour. The desaturation felt minimal as light and shadow is utilized to provide hot and cold spots — contrast is punchy and deep. It’s almost hard to believe this film was shot digitally, as the gleaming beauty of this black and white presentation screams as though it would’ve been destined for film stock. The cinematography and framing in this story is something to behold, it felt raw, honest, and like the vivid memory of Cuarón himself.
Each shot lingers on-screen, panning to draw attention to only what matters and remaining still so audiences can absorb the narrative on-screen. This film is essentially entirely void of a musical score, meaning everything must be taken in by the films soundscape to draw an understanding of what is being said here in Cuarón’s decision. It’s simple, the absence of a musical piece allows for the viewer to remain immersed in the narrative without muddying the memories that Cuarón has with music that does not fit.
Roma is an intrinsically human story, a slow crawl that builds toward a heartfelt and inspiring climax. It speaks on a deeply cultural level, and a personal level for not just Cuarón, but many of those that have had an underappreciated figure loom over them throughout their life. An ode to the guardians that float in the background of people’s lives — Roma is an empathetic and deeply human memoir told from the bedrock of director Alfonso Cuarón’s heart.