Mexico City in 1970 was a hotbed of social and cultural upheaval, but that’s usually relegated to the backdrop in Roma. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, this drama isn’t quite quotidian in its concerns — the plot not only incorporates the sometimes-violent class struggles of Mexico in the early ’70s, but also personal drama involving a trying marital separation and an unplanned pregnancy. But it focuses more intensely on the everyday, with larger events only breaking into the protagonists’ lives when they reach a boiling point.
This makes sense, since the central character, Cleo (played with acute nuance by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), is a maid. She’s more preoccupied with sweeping the dog’s droppings off the driveway than with student protests. Her personal problems are wholly separate from those of her country and the rich family she works for. We see the latter only through her eyes, while in scenes that focus on her, the audience takes her place as a witness to events as they unfold.
Cuarón based the script on his own childhood experiences. The title is a reference both to Italian Neorealist director Federico Fellini’s own 1972 autobiographical film Roma and to Colonia Roma, a historic Mexico City neighborhood that experienced a decline starting around 1970, when the film’s story begins. Filtering the era’s events through a character based on his own family’s maid is an unusual choice for a memoirist work — he’s called it a tribute to the women who raised him.
Through films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón has gained a reputation for elaborate long takes. Acting as his own cinematographer here, he does something similar, but in a less overt way. This is a film meticulous in its construction of images, carefully considering both the primary action and the background in every scene. Multiple wide shots with everything in focus play out ever so slowly, giving a character time to, say, cross a road or go about their chores, allowing the viewer to take in every detail.
One recurring motif is of an airplane passing overhead, but the film never looks up; the planes are only heard, or seen in reflections, or in the distance of a very wide shot. The movie emphasizes a sense of remoteness: the camera often pulls as far away from the characters as far as it can, capturing them from the back row of a movie palace or the corner of a small hotel room. The lack of a score and the black-and-white visuals further this method of non-showy technique with complex mise-en-scène.
Cleo is marginalized not just socially but thematically, appearing dwarfed by her surroundings, lacking in agency, buffeted by the demands of her job and the history happening around her. The film’s handling of these thorny class dynamics is spotty. In some small moments, it cannily captures the inequality Cleo faces as a woman of indigenous descent working in a servile role. One of the children tells her not to speak Mixtec, her native tongue, in the home — in a playful way, not as an authoritative command, but the implicit disrespect of her language is there nonetheless. When the family grandmother brings an in-labor Cleo to the hospital, she makes a weak excuse not to accompany her into the emergency room.
The movie’s distance here works against it, emphasizing its outsider’s view of what it frames as lower-class concerns. Instead of lending her character dimensionality, Cleo’s tribulations begin to feel cartoonishly grim. And even if the film’s climax doesn’t ultimately affirm that Cleo is “part of the family,” it still feels like it overly sentimentalizes her position with them. Roma‘s clouded view of its main character’s circumstances lessens its overall impact.
Roma is currently in select theaters. Its theatrical run will expand and is now streaming on Netflix.