Life is what happens when we’re not paying attention. Small, routine moments mark our transition through the world, often going ignored or unnoticed. We live in them, with them. It is here that Alfonso Cuarón sets his story – in the seeming mundanity of the life of a 1970’s Mexico City housekeeper named Cleo. Her story is quaint, upon first brush. She tends to a middle-class family, lighter in skin tone than she but suffering their own afflictions nonetheless, and we’re invited to drop in, given visitation rights to observe the lulling normalcy of this chaotic collection of lives.
Like all great storytelling, it’s what’s left unsaid, what’s happening in the background, that makes Roma such an entrancing cinematic experience and Alfonso Cuarón sets about constructing a film that’s complicated by competing, unspoken emotions with a circus of visual tableaus staged around them, crowding in the insecurities and isolation percolating elsewhere in his character’s inner lives. His filmmaking is a delicate balancing act that stacks layers upon layers upon layers of imagery and feeling until he has made a quiet castle, resplendent in its detail work, majestic in its modesty. Each scene is a play within a play, the shifting backdrop of Roma a symphony of wonderfully orchestrated chaos. Allowing the unpredictable sway of the world an accidental look is an exceedingly difficult feat – be it a raging wildfire, a joyous wedding, the delivery of a child, a violent riot – and one that Cuarón tackles with the skill of a real maestro. Nothing is ever as simple as what is happening in the foreground. No shot is simple nor is it fussy. Cuarón, known for staging breathtaking one-take sequences in movies like Gravity and Children of Men, burrows into a brand of filmmaking that isn’t the least bit showy. In fact, the less observant viewer may miss entirely the genius of his craft, so subtle is this masterclass of filmmaking. Every single aspect of Roma is shepherded into being with remarkable skill and grace, even a gentle pan shot feels like a tender hand on the small of your back, redirecting your attention. If Cuarón’s Oscar-winning work in Gravity displays a technical marksman flexing his muscles and showing off in grand fashion, Roma allows his maternal instincts to take hold. And the result is equally brilliant, if decidedly less exciting.
Inspired by the women who raised him, Roma plays like a distant memory. The world of the middle-class suburb after which the film is named is both vast and claustrophobic – the air full of broken promises, shattered dreams, and budding potential. The city feels alive and complex – both friend and enemy. Cleo, though deeply loved by the family she cooks for, cleans for, washes, and watches, is both sturdy outsider and beloved relative. The challenging dichotomy of being employed by, adored by, and commanded by a family serves as a stark reminder of social and racial divisions that held tight during that time period and now. Cleo is both integral to the makeup of the family but will never really be one of them. Not truly.
Watching it, one feels as though they have discovered a vintage postcard scribbled with an ancient love note, Cuarón’s story blooming in empathic colors, black and white though the film’s palette may be. Palpable warmth emanates off of Cuarón’s color-scrubbed photography – the director also served as cinematographer, editor, writer, and producer – and basking in it feels much like, in a word, being loved. This is, in the truest sense of the word, his baby. And much like the women of this story guide their children through the chaos of life, doing their best to protect them from the dangers that beseech them on every street corner, Cuarón nurtures his story with the warm watchfulness of a mother.
Digging into the rich inner-life of Cleo, Cuarón’s message is equally about the growing pains of a family – the realization and recognition that fairy tales and reality stand in stark opposite – and how we become inoculated to the world around us. The work is nothing less than profound; a sumptuous, poetic meditation, though Cleo’s humble story – which involves no small share of betrayal, loss, and love – may lose the casual viewer unwilling to really dig into the material and to engage with its more challenging themes. Beautiful and striking, both visually and emotionally, Roma luxuriates in its atmosphere-driven mood, unveiling itself in restrained, piecemeal fashion.
Every corner of Cuarón’s account feels lived in, dirtied, alive. The house hums with the sounds of barking children and leaping pets; mysterious planes fly overhead as if to mark chapters beginning and ending; disquieting lies and half-truths lurk in the corners, haunting a household, a city, a country. This is slice of life cinema on a grand scale, burning with a bright sense of purpose and vivid memory and tacked to restrained performances from the likes of Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. Through these two women, the sense of family and sense of purpose purrs, becomes intertwined and entangled. Roma allows us to step into Cuarón’s childhood, to savor a taste of a past and place both distant and familiar. And like just about any time machine, it’s fairly remarkable.
CONCLUSION: Alfonso Cuarón’s return behind the camera marks his most personal chapter yet in this subtle masterclass of filmmaking. ‘Roma’ is a textured, richly-detailed dream; a sympathetic memory of maternal grace that’s anything but the placid surface it presents.