Roma, the follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic, Gravity, is a change of pace for the auteur. Set in Mexico City during the 1970’s, the film centers around Cleo, a servant for an upper-class Mexican family, who becomes our eyes and ears for a world that’s surrounded by domestic toil and social and class upheaval. While Cuaron’s previous two films were science fiction: Gravity and Children of Men, Roma finds the director returning to Mexico for the first time since Y Tu Mamá También.
From the moment the trailer for Roma was released, shot in black-and-white, depicting water washing over stone as a plane flew over head, there was an acceptance that the film would be deliberate and painstakingly crafted. Nevertheless, the film’s life force is Cuaron’s camera movements, his insistence on delivering a story centered around a servant, along with Yalitza Aparicio performance, and Cuaron’s own cinematography.
The camera may be viewed as Cuaron’s dream-like vision of his childhood. However, its gaze is servant-esqu as well. The camera is passive and observant, yet restricted. As Sofía (Marina de Tavira), the children’s mother, struggles, we are only as unaware of her troubles as her children.
In fact, we’re as aware as Cleo. Because servants are often treated as furniture, in the background of a room, but rarely in the foreground. Cleo is often cognizant of Sofía’s turmoil, but rarely knows the full scope. And much like the camera, Cleo is passive. As the troubles of the outside world breaches into this family, often with events happening before her eyes, she never panics. Instead, her reaction is glazed over and Cuaron’s long pans matches that observant passivity.
There’s also an upstairs-downstairs effect. Cuaron is intently interested in the separation between the two classes: servant and upper-middle class. Cleo lives on the upper-adjacent level of the family home, and must often come downstairs to begin many of her chores, save washing clothes. Cuaron’s interest in Cleo’s private moments, that is when she’s preparing to sleep or talking about dating is still unusual even for today. Mostly because films rarely focus on servants.
Cuaron could have just as easily directed his intent toward Sofia’s life. She’s a wealthy woman going through personal upheaval. And until the latter portions of the film, Cleo has very little drama surrounding her. Instead, Sra Sofia is always on the periphery. Which says that Roma isn’t so much a vision of Cuaron’s childhood, but a vision of the most important person in his childhood—a person who has rarely received their due. That makes Roma, a study of “excavation narrative.” It’s Cuaron looking back toward a period and mining the small details for the larger picture.
And Roma is all about the small details in relation to the larger picture. Because while we’re mostly insulated in Cloe’s life, there are always references toward the outside world. There’s the working class’s discontent. There’s revolution and upheaval. There are planes flying above filled with separate lives from the ones down below. But mostly, there’s life itself. And obviously, Cuaron makes the theater the epicenter of all escapism. It’s also where he slips blatant references to his film, Gravity.
Much like Dunkirk, Roma is an ensemble effort. Even its lead characters are short on dialogue. That will make Yalitza Aparicio‘s bid for an Academy Award difficult because the Academy doesn’t like subtly. Aparicio’s performance is the very definition of subtly. She never has the jump on the table look at me moment that Academy voters crave, but she should be the leader in the clubhouse. It’s too simplistic to paint Aparicio’s performance as the same kind of colorlessness that invades Cuaron’s black-and-white epic. No, Aparicio provides color in the smallest, yet most tantalizing spectrum. She provides the hues that are rarely valued but should be taken for silver and gold. She provides the pallet of the everyday.
Aparicio’s performance is a slow development, equivalent to leaves changing colors. But as days pass into night, as we see the relationship with herself and Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero)—a guy who most audiences would pay good money to see pistol whipped—and her connection with the family she serves change from servant to friend, we see the coloring of her performance become more vibrant and layered.
The same adjectives may also be applied to the cinematography by Cuaron. The film is a fusion of classic and modern filmmaking: combining 65mm with a digital distribution platform: Netflix. It should be encouraged to view Roma in a cinema if you can, but the film is strong enough and the quality is such that it’ll still amaze you and retain its placid beauty even on Netflix. Because Cuaron’s vivid retelling of this period, his wide scope of events—in their interiority and exteriority—his tacit political commentary and his empathy toward a servant makes Roma the unmistakable triumph of this year.
An official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): 2018.