You’re probably going to decide whether ROMA is for you or not by its opening shot, a very long shot of soapy water washing up and down some flagstones. It certainly sets the mood and the pace of the piece, a reflective walk down memory lane for writer-director Alfonso Cuarón.
The story of a housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) to an upper middle-class family in Mexico City and a turbulent year in the 1970s that changes all of their lives.
Straight out of the gate Cleo is marked as different by her first language, the Mexican indigenous language of Mixtec, a difference emphasised by presenting this dialogue in a different format of subtitle to the Spanish her employers speak. It’s a question of class and ethnicity, but also a conscious choice exercised by the housekeepers for the sake of what little privacy they are allowed and to keep their unique identity intact while performing a menial job. We couldn’t be placed in closer proximity to Cleo and her experiences, Aparicio in her incredible screen debut imbuing everything she does with an earnest humanity.
Unusually, and helpfully for a non-Spanish speaking audience, the subtitles are lined up in frame with the action, or the focus of the shot, so you never find yourself scanning the screen to keep up and never miss telling little details in scenes, and these little details are many. Mischievous little running gags are peppered throughout too, often involving the family’s dogs’ endless pooing or the dad’s (Fernando Grediaga, all hairy wrists and bling) obsession with his shiny car not quite meshing with his lack of spacial awareness.
The family are not cruel to Cleo, but they’re unappreciative. She’s as much a given in their day-to-day lives as running water and only very occasionally in moments of extreme emotional and physical distress are they thankful for having her as part of the family unit. The mother (Marina de Tavira, permanently tightly coiled) especially seems to see Cleo more as a convenience than a person, but when she goes through her own troubles they form an unlikely but real bond. You could see Roma as Cuarón’s belated letter of apology to his real childhood housekeeper, only remembering how beloved she really was when looking back through the mists of time. Speaking of Cuarón, his story stand-in is of course the widest-eyed of the children and we see him in a formative scene watching, what else? A space movie (MAROONED). I wonder if that’ll have an influence on his career…
Shots go on forever both in terms of the director’s usual showy long-takes (used for both action scenes and extended dialogue) but also how far back into each scene you can see. Everything’s visually as well as emotionally deep. The languid pace of the storytelling and Cleo’s repetitive daily routine gives you plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and really feel for the characters grappling with their place in the world and their relationships with others, Cuarón’s cinematography keeping us intimately involved with domestic events and yet passive and helpless observers of the moments when lives are upended.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether it’s “right” to watch Roma on Netflix (“the way Alfonso Cuarón intended” is already a fairly amusing meme). Yes, it would have been nice to see these meticulous visuals on a big screen, but equally we’re talking about the democratisation of cinema here and the idea that a quick release to Netflix has resulted in many more seeing Roma than otherwise would have done.
Roma is unquestionably a hang-it-in-a-gallery-beautiful film, emotionally punchy and deeply personal to the director’s childhood experiences. You may find it too measured or drawn out, you may find Cuarón’s Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN more honest and immediate or CHILDREN OF MEN to be more visceral, but this is still pretty special. SSP