ROMA Review

Roma is what one would call a hard sell. Despite being writer/director Alfonso Cuarón's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Gravity (Cuarón won Best Director for this effort) it couldn't be more different and because of this, more daring. It's daring based simply on the fact it is a two-hour personal opus, shot in black and white, and featuring English subtitles. In going ahead and acknowledging the elephant in the room, it's not difficult to see why the production companies who gave Cuarón $15 million to make the project also decided to go with Netflix as their distributor. And while, based on nothing more than its pristine aesthetic, Cuarón's most personal film to date certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen, given the content of the film and the types of people whose lives Roma explores it also makes perfect sense that the film be released to audiences in the most accessible way possible. It is a fine line to walk and while, as someone who loves going to the cinema, will always believe seeing a movie in the theater is the best way to see a movie it's hard to argue that the majority of mainstream audiences don't see many a films until years after they've been released and on their own televisions or other devices. Is it a shame some viewers will only experience the beauty of Cuarón's cinematography (yes, he serves as his own cinematographer here too) on their smart phones? Of course, but by making a film like Roma available to those who aren't within driving distance of a theater, but have a subscription to Netflix allows for the film to connect with what Cuarón is illustrating as well as connect with a bigger, more diverse audience than it likely would have if limited to a traditional theatrical and home video release. The key word here though, is illustrate. Roma doesn't so much as tell a specific story or drive home a certain narrative as much as it does illustrate a contemplative yet precisely executed observation of a year in the life of this upper-class family in Mexico City in the early seventies and more pointedly, on that of the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, making her acting debut).

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) takes a moment out of her busy day to play with one of the children she cares for.
Photo by Photo by Carlos Somonte
As soapy water soaks over stone tiles in what could literally be hundreds of thousands of different locations anywhere in the world planes fly overhead as if to feel so close, but leaving to go so far away. The routine of soak, wash, and drain becomes clear given the opening credits scroll over this repeated task until the last bucket has disappeared from the now clean floor. The camera pans up and we learn that not only are we in Mexico, but that this particular set of stones function as a garage where Cleo and another maid, Adela (Nancy García García) have been washing. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the matriarch of the household, along with her four young children, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demesa), as well as Sofia's mother, Teresa (Verónica García), who also lives in the house. Sofia's husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga)-a doctor-is returning home from work the first time we meet him and is none too pleased to find his driveway littered with dog feces despite the efforts of Cleo and Adela that we are more than privy to, but that Antonio couldn't care less about. It is clear as Cuarón guides his camera through the bustling household that Cleo's day rarely slows down whether it be ensuring the kids are awake and getting ready for school, preparing their meals, picking up loose ends they've left around the house, running errands, and/or cycling through all of these chores again once the family returns home in the afternoons. As much as there is an expectation of Cleo though, there is an attachment and fondness for her as well-especially from Sofia and the children. Cuarón's purpose for establishing this home as familiar, as our own, is not solely to connect with the atmosphere or the similarities to viewers own home lives though, but also to highlight a strain in the relationship between Sofia and Antonio. The doctor is getting ready to leave for a conference in Quebec and it seems neither he nor his wife are sure if he'll be coming back. The children know nothing of the tension, but Cleo can clearly sense there is a rift between the two and must not only balance her level of involvement with the family and her duties, but also that of how she serves what are no longer two employers on the same page, but employers with a drastically shifting personal dynamic between them. It is in these unspoken nuances of how much more there is to Cleo's job than what the surface description would offer that lend Roma an inherently personal tone. Cuarón focuses on Cleo, but this attention doesn't serve to push Cleo to the forefront, rather it exemplifies how all of what Cleo does impacts and reverberates through the whole of the story of this family.

The director contrasts this very intimate tale with that of the brewing social unrest in Mexico at the time-specifically the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, where a group trained in martial arts by the government attacked student demonstrators. These bigger, broader events don't so much play into the plot of the film as they do inform the atmosphere if not infrequently come into play story-wise out of little more than natural circumstance. To discuss too many details of the story would be to do the experience something of a disservice, but given the film doesn't necessarily have what one would traditionally call a "driving narrative" it is also difficult to discuss the film at all without touching on or at least hinting at the types of events that take place. To this extent, while it is initially difficult to pin down where Roma might take its audience what it does very well and pretty obviously from the get-go is to expertly layer in all the numerous personal dynamics at play. For instance, as we are seeing Cleo's life events unfold from the perspective of Cleo the majority of the men present seem solely interested in sexual satisfaction. Beginning with Antonio and moving through to Cleo's boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who is the cousin of  Adela's boyfriend, Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza), as the four initially meet up to see a movie together, but don't end up doing so when Fermín suggests to Cleo that they rent a room. This leads to something of a striking scene in which Fermín, after he and Cleo have clearly had sex and while still completely nude, shows off his martial arts skills using the shower rod as a pole. While the forwardness with which Cuarón documents this may at first be disarming it is as the film continues to play out the character of Fermín becomes more clearly defined with the reasons as to why Cuarón chose to not only disarm his audience, but the character as well becoming more clear. Fermín leaves everything on the table, but proves very little and accomplishes nothing more than leaving the opposite of the impression he likely hoped to convey. Like Antonio, or the men at a wealthy Christmas party at a hacienda who seem more interested in their guns than they do their wives, Fermín is a man who craves an identity outside of partnership and separate from whatever category his family or heritage might have inherently lumped him into. He is a man of pride, of selfishness-like all men-but he is also a man unwilling to own up to his responsibilities; there is no shift in priority when it's obvious there should be thus displaying a lack of humanity. As much as Roma is about capturing a very intimate portrait of this very specific time period it is also a confrontation of reality, of how alone in this society the woman is left to feel despite carrying the brunt of the burden said society demands.

The dynamics of the family unit are under much examination in Alfonso Cuarón's  Roma.
Photo by Photo by Carlos Somonte
What is curious about this interpretation of one aspect of Roma though, is that it feels like such a small piece of the larger puzzle that is the whole of the film. It feels as if Roma is about so much at once and yet is simultaneously so simple in its intent if not its execution. In highlighting this single piece that deals in what amounts to the uselessness of men to so many of the women that are a part of Roma's narrative it's difficult to discern if this theme stood out due to the fact I myself am a male or if it's in fact a key element in the film's meaning. Roma certainly feels as if it serves as this testament to not only women, but more specifically the women who shaped Cuarón and populated his world, but if my focus came to lie on the aspect of how men played into their lives am I not appreciating the undoubtedly numerous other ideas the film is emphasizing about these women? To take what feels like the director's main idea and parlay it into the wake-up call this viewer took from the film would seem to be justified.To this credit, Aparicio does a fantastic job in her first feature in both verbally and non-verbally communicating the resilience of Cleo and these other women who, despite all the social unrest and frightening things that were going on around them as a result, kept on; continuing to choose to rebuild, continuing to choose to raise children, all the while sustaining this sense of ease and wonder in the children's eyes that surrounded them on a daily basis. Despite all of this though, there was something of a disconnect emotionally between myself and the emotions we are both meant to invest in and be affected by. A symptom I'm often afflicted with is that of allowing single moments or scenes to re-define how an entire film is evaluated even if more of the film left me lukewarm than didn't. There is certainly a danger in doing this with Roma as the film builds to a doozy of a climax that is near impossible to come back from and is unquestionably powerful not only in the moment that it presents, but in the unimaginable number of new questions it unboxes. The question of guilt that comes into play, the questions of how right or wrong Cleo was to feel the way she did in response to certain events given the perspective she has that we become privy to when Cuarón takes us back to the near-destitute village Cleo visits when searching for Fermín that lends a new appreciation for her life, where she's come from, and the difference in how she was raised and the raising of the children she is overseeing in her domestic occupation. The question being, does this new light that is turned on for both the audience and the main character near the conclusion of the film that imposes a new interpretation of previous events immediately improve the majority of the film that initially might not have been as engaging? It's hard to say for, with this new information, repeat viewings will almost certainly be viewed as improvements, but should a film at least attempt to do all it was meant to do within a single viewing? As unfair as that may seem it in fact seems that, while Roma is an unequivocal visual masterpiece, it leaves a desire for investment that is meant to develop organically, but only connects momentarily.