Movie Review: Roma
By Matthew Huntley
January 1, 2019
The generally accepted rule for film aesthetics is that the aesthetics should mirror what’s happening in the film. Devices such as lighting, music, camera movement, editing, etc. should complement or underline the events on-screen. The goal, obviously, is to heighten the narrative and make the story’s situations more identifiable and relatable to the viewer.
But Alfonso Cuarón, one of our most gifted filmmakers, decidedly breaks that rule with “Roma,” which is perhaps his most personal venture to date. With this film, one of his lofty aims is to show that in spite of all the commotion, conflict and freneticism going on in the world, humans, at their core, have an underlying goodness and an essential need to feel and share love. His aesthetics bring this concept to light by going against the grain of the action instead of supplementing it.
Set in the early 1970s, in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood, the film opens on a quiet, soothing image of a backyard patio as it reflects the looming sky above. Water that we would have believed was coming from the ocean gently washes the cement blocks as the opening credits roll, followed by a slow, steady tilt that reveals an affluent house. This is the home of Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four children. It’s also the place of employment for the angelic, soft-spoken Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who, along with Adela (Nancy García García), is one of the family’s two maids.
Cleo, as played by Aparicio, is the heart of “Roma” and our conduit into its experience, and from the first moment Aparicio appears in frame, it’s easy to why Cuarón cast her. Not only do her acting talents make Cleo an instantly genuine and sympathetic character, but her alluring and magnetic facial features allow us to see her as a representation of nature, purity, and the basic good in all of us. As dramatic events play out in the film, Cleo remains a quiet, faithful protector who only wants to do what’s right—for herself and for others.
Superbly photographed in black and white by Cuarón, the film begins by following Cleo as she does her day to day duties around the house, which have become so routine she could probably perform them with her eyes closed. But she remains dedicated and obedient, and we watch as the camera slowly and gracefully pans across the house that she and Adela have kept immaculate, moving from one room to the next. This won’t be the first time the camera peers this way or in this particular location, but more on that later.
Tension ensues when it becomes evident Antonio and Sofía’s marriage is suffering. He tells his kids he’ll be flying to Quebec for work, but this is just a ruse to spare them from the truth. Meanwhile, Cleo experiences her own relationship turmoil with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), whose poor and rough childhood has left him hostile and angry, which he’s managed to channel through martial arts. In what we initially expect to be a scene of mockery, Fermín stands completely naked and shows off his combat skills to Cleo using a curtain rod. But our instinct to laugh quickly subside when we see just how talented Fermín is and listen intently on the grave dialogue he speaks. This is just one way in which Cuarón defies our expectations and breaks down our fixed notions of how we expect people to behave based solely on their appearance. He challenges us to see and accept more than just what’s in front of us.
Cleo finds her rather mundane life suddenly upended when she discovers she’s pregnant, but when she tells Fermín, he literally runs for the hills, leaving her to the care of Sofía and Sofía’s live-in mother, Teresa (Verónica García). This development allows us to see that Sofía and Teresa view Cleo as more than just a maid, which also catches us off guard, especially because we assume Sofia is too wrapped up in the stresses of her own failing marriage to care about Cleo. But one of the points Cuarón wants to make with “Roma” is that when human beings need each other, especially in times of desperation, it’s our basic goodness and compassion that prevails.
In addition to her own domestic and personal unrest, Cleo’s pregnancy coincides with the social upheaval of the time. Amid the Mexican Dirty War, Cleo and Teresa witness a tragedy following the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, when student protestors were killed by soldiers from the Mexican army. This leads to a dangerous confrontation with Fermín, who previously threatened Cleo if she ever accused him of being the father of their unborn child.
What transpires is no wonder given all that Cleo has to bear, and while the film does pack an emotional wallop in regard to her own personal struggles, it’s important to recognize this is not just Cleo’s story. Cuarón, by presenting all the film’s events slowly, quietly and impartially, and by lending weight and dimension to all the characters and their situations, wants us to grasp this could really be anyone’s story, including our own. He wants us to consider the idea that humans create chaos for themselves and it’s us who happen to this world, not the other way around. He’s bold and patient in the way he simply allows the camera to sit and observe as the personal and social pressures mount and release. The result is a film that reiterates humans are part of a collective unit and we’re all in this crazy life together, so we should do our best to help each other along as best we can.
Given all the “chaos” of the plot and way the characters’ lives spiral out of control and meet near-fatal ends, it would stand to reason “Roma” would be colorful instead of black and white; the camera would move fast instead of slow; and Cuarón and co-editor Adam Gough would make a lot more cuts. And while such a strategy often works (“City of God” comes to mind), “Roma” wants show that the external happenings in our lives are fleeting. The camera and imagery, by remaining calm and balanced throughout, represent our inherent goodness, which doesn’t change. It’s something we all possess and should strive to come back to.
The more apparent the film’s underlying meaning becomes, the more it dawns on us the details of the plot, including the time, location and people, are incidental. This goes along with the idea that the details in our own lives, to which we ascribe so much meaning, whether they’re good or bad, tedious or exciting, tragic or blessed, are basically impermanent, while it’s our essential needs to love and be loved that does not.
I’ll not give away what happens in the “Roma” that made me come to this conclusion, and I don’t claim to be absolutely right about its meaning, but I do know the way I perceived the film speaks to its power. What’s also beautiful about it is that it proves just as effective as a “traditional” human drama, with its complex characters whom we care for and empathize with, whom we view as real, vulnerable beings, each flawed and lovable in his or her own way. We appreciate everything they endure, both personally and in the context of the important social and historical events.
However anyone sees it, Cuarón’s “Roma” is arguably special. To me, it’s a representation of humanity and the kind of film you could watch over and over again and still pick up on new things each time. In this regard, it mirrors how we’re constantly reexamining our own lives and how wonderful it is that we always manage to discover something new about who we are. But however much we find out more about ourselves, it’s important to remember our basic goodness is always there and it’s a quality shared by everyone.