The opening credits of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” feature water sloshing across a tile floor, wave after wave. This foreshadows what is really the only “dramatic” moment of what is effectively a slow burn. The water flows, cleaning what we later find, is the constant dog shit that covers the driveway of the family home in Mexico City’s Roma district, the home of a middle class doctor’s family and their live-in maid, Cleo.
This film is elegant and beautiful, a love letter to memory and a thoughtful study of how the other half lives. Cuarón, who won an Oscar for directing “Gravity” is likely to pick up another one here for a magnificent example of auteurship — he also wrote the screenplay and was his own cinematographer and editor.
“Roma” is set in 1971, a time when a doctor’s government salary could afford a nice house in an affluent middle-class neighborhood. It is soon clear that there are tensions in the marriage between the doctor (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife, Sofia, wonderfully played by Marina de Tavira, who picked up a supporting actress Oscar nomination. The whole household is hectic swirl of domestic noise, with three children — the youngest being Cuaron’s avatar — a live-in grandmother and a yapping dog.
The Mexico City of the film also has chaos outside the house, where the June 10 “Corpus Christi Massacre,” where protesting students were attacked by paramilitary forces, plays out in the streets. A family outing is peripherally caught up in the protests.
The calm center of the storm is Cleo, the live-in domestic and nanny, played with taciturn stoicism by Yalitza Aparicio. Cuaron talks about spending a year to find the right lead for his film, and in Aparicio, a student pre-school teacher who is making her film debut, he has found the perfect Cleo. Her performance is subdued, as she almost silently walks through the film. One gets the impression that things happen to her, not because of any proactivity on her part.
In this sense, she is a symbol of Mexico’s working poor. She is existing with little chance of improving her lot. This is Cuarón’s memoir, but he does not try to sugarcoat Cleo’s lot. She is yelled at for not cleaning the dog shit. While the family does seem to care for her, and they do take care of her in her time of need, she is not really a member of the family.
Much has been written about the fact that the indigenous working poor in Mexico are scarcely better off now than they were then. That may be the case, but this film does not fall into the category of either glorifying the poor or presenting the family as somehow saintly. It is simply a slice of life story, upon which we can imprint our own impressions.
Cuarón’s direction is magnificent, and he will probably win his second directing Oscar. “Roma” could not be more different in tone than his other winner, “Gravity,” yet there are stylistic similarities in the way the camera sweeps and swirls through the scenes (when Cleo goes to the movies it is to see “Marooned,” a space thriller that is clearly Cuarón’s nod to the film that inspired his work on “Gravity”).
Cuarón has clearly thought about the world he grew up in and is aware of the contrast with Cleo’s. The camera sweeps through the family home as the kids run from room to room while the grandmother harries them to get ready for school. There is space to run and the noise of entitlement. By contrast, Cleo’s apartment out in the backyard is shot with a static camera from one angle, suggesting there is no room to move or change the view.
There is one scene where Cleo takes charge of her actions, but it is in service of the children. The scene is full of dramatic tension that, in contrast to the languid pacing of the previous scenes, leaves the viewer breathless.
The film is dedicated to “Libo,” Liboria Rodriguez, the real-life Cleo. It is clearly a love letter to not only the woman, but also a way for Cuarón to understand the world he grew up in. In a recent interview in Variety, he said, “I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble. I didn’t have an awareness. I [had] what your parents tell you — that you have to be nice to people who are less privileged than you and all of that — but you’re in your childhood universe.”
“Roma” does not offer answers to questions of social politics or class structure. It is simply an attempt to understand Cuarón’s memory. It is visually and structurally a sumptuous film. The story unfolds like a written memoir, allowing the viewer to breath in the atmosphere.
“Roma” may well become the first foreign language film and first Netflix-produced production to win the best picture Oscar, and I for one would be quite fine with that.
“Roma” is currently streaming on Netflix.