Life is chaotic. This is what Alfonso Cuarón explores in his most personal movie to date, "Roma." The black-and-white drama is a semi-autobiographical tale of a live-in maid and the family who employs her. Cuarón doesn't tell the story from his perspective, nor that of the family. Instead, we see the story from the eyes of Cleo, the domestic worker based on Liboria Rodríguez, the real live-in maid who still is a part of Cuarón's life.
In order to make the film work as a slice of life, Cuarón didn't give the actors a full script. They received their lines on the day of each shoot. Additionally, every scene was shot sequentially. Each actor knew only as much as their character from that point in the movie. From this, Cuarón elicited completely natural and emotional reactions from his actors. This is how life works -- utter chaos born from the unknown. As they say, all roads lead to "Roma," today's Hispanic Heritage Month must-see movie.
It's Mexico. 1970. We meet Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). She's the live-in maid to a well-to-do middle-class family who makes ends meet in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Cleo is indigenous and her role here is to tend to the house, wash the driveway, do the laundy, and watch the kids. The family is lucky, being able to afford this life. But as we see, for the inhabitants of the rest of the city, such a life is unachievable for most.
We see family life from Cleo's perspective. She tends to the dogs when mother Sofía and the family greet father Antonio as he comes home late from work. She takes care of the dishes as the family sits down to watch TV. It's through Cleo's eyes we are introduced to this world. The house is neat and tidy, but we hear Antonio express his displeasure in an off-screen conversation.
Cleo lives in a detached apartment with a fellow maid. Their working days revolve around the family, but they both have their own lives. Cleo has a boyfriend who is training in martial arts. He loves her; and one day, when they take in a movie at a local cinema, she tells him that she's pregnant. He seems fine with the news at first, but then he never comes back from the bathroom.
At the same time, we learn that not everything is peachy with the family. After Antonio departs on a business trip to Quebec, Sofía is left on her own. Antonio's work will keep him in Canada for longer than expected, or so it seems. Or maybe Antonio is making a break for it.
Cleo and Sofía are from different worlds, but their troubles are the same at the end of the day. They must be strong and face uncertainty on their own. But they're not alone; they have each other.
Hispanic Heritage Month Connections
Set against the backdrop of a country tearing itself apart is Cuaron's family drama. The politics of the day is not a major focus. But the two stories -- one obvious and the other inferred -- are inextricably linked.
In Mexico at the time of "Roma," the socio-economic divide was coming to a head. The populace was growing weary of its oppressive government, which had been in control of the country since 1929. By the late '60s, the gaps dividing the haves and the have-nots were too large to fill. Protests and violence were a part of everyday life. Come 1968, the Mexican government could no longer contain political unrest and violence found its way to the city streets. The 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre (which plays out in the film's harrowing climax) resulted from years of government oppression.
As the difference of classes plays out in the background, it subtly seeps into the more personal story at the forefront. Conversations reference land disputes while the family is vacationing outside the city. Street protests and political posters fill the atmosphere as dissent grows. The family's privilege keeps them unaware of all the hardship playing out around them.
Even more apparent is the racial divide that exists within the family unit. At first, Cleo's employers keep her at arm's length. The children see her as a family member, but Sofía and especially Antonio only view her as an employee. The family lets her watch TV but then asks her to go to the kitchen. Cleo joins them on vacation, but she's there to work, not unwind.
All of this shaped Cuarón's life as he grew up and became more aware of the history and stories around him. In the years since "Roma" swept the 2018 awards season, other directors have taken a page from Cuarón's opus. This year Netflix, coincidentally enough, is set to release the autobiographical coming-of-age drama "The Hand of God," from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. His film will explore the family drama that shaped him and a connection to sports that saved him.
Also, this year Kenneth Branagh will revisit his own childhood in "Belfast." Like "Roma," "Belfast" will explore (in black-and-white, no less) how politics shaped his family and his upbringing. Next year, Steven Speilberg will do the same.
Why You Should See It
"Roma" reminds you that the power of cinema comes from the medium's ability to let you, the viewer, experience a world much different from your own. It's a semi-autobiographical movie, but Cuarón's analog isn't even a supporting character. We are not viewing the story from his perspective or even that of the family. We are looking into the past from the perspective of a character typically reserved for the background. This is her story.
Following the critical and financial success of "Gravity," Cuarón could have made any film he wanted. What he chose to produce was something intimate and personal, yet still very relatable. This is why "Roma" is a must-see -- not just for Hispanic Heritage Month, but in general. As Cuarón's filmmaker contemporary, Guillermo del Toro wrote for Variety's "Directors on Directors" in 2019: "In these, our troubled times, [Cuarón] speaks about characters that are invisible and dramas that go unspoken, and thus he provides us with the most urgent of antidotes: empathy."
"Roma" became one of the most praised movies of 2018. The film won 250 awards, including three Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography). As we touched on in our highlight of director Cuarón, his Oscar win here was an achievement in and of itself. Much the same, the film's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film was a first for Mexico.
Did You Know
The house where "Roma" takes place is a real house you can visit in the actual Roma neighborhood where Cuarón grew up. His boyhood home is located right across the street. Set designers took meticulous care to recreate the entirety of the home's interior on a studio set. They also tracked down furniture and furnishings that were from Cuarón's own home. While Cuarón shot much of the interior on a set, some of the more famous outdoor shots, such as the opening and closing sequences with the airplanes overhead, were shot on location. Earlier this year, the "Roma" house went up for sale.
Another interesting fact is that "Roma" is one of the first Netflix films to have a physical Blu-ray and DVD release. In 2020, "Roma" was added to the Criterion Collection, a first for the streamer. Netflix was proud of this distinction, calling it "an honor." To coincide with the Criterion release, Netflix produced "Road to Roma," a companion behind-the-scenes/making-of documentary.
November 29, 2018
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.