This acclaimed movie is out on Netflix, but I jumped at the chance to watch it on the big screen in the comfort of the ACMI movie theatre. Though I found it easier to admire than to love, it was very much a worthwhile visit.
The film is a labour of love for director Alfonso Cuarón, who reached into his own childhood memories to craft this slice-of-life drama about a middle-class family and their faithful maid living in early-70s Mexico City. Cleo, played by soulful newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, is a young indigenous woman who is both a beloved member of the household and an invisible help who firmly occupies the lower rung in the order of things. She can partake in the family intimate moments, with the understanding that her servant duties will always come first, and the film highlights this inequality in a myriad different ways.
The placid pond of the family life slowly reveals troubles, as the man of the house leaves on a supposed business trip that leaves his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) stressed and unhappy. Meanwhile, Cleo’s personal life unravels when her dodgy boyfriend takes off the minute she hints that she might be pregnant. Between the terrible husband and terrible boyfriend and terrible attitudes of the secondary male characters there really isn’t a single decent guy in sight.
Shot in ravishing black-and-white by the director who knows exactly what he’s going for at any given moment, Roma is an incredible artistic achievement and definitely a movie to savour on the big screen. The complete absence of the soundtrack adds to the naturalistic feel, and while the film doesn’t lack a central storyline it unfolds in an episodic manner, with the big events intruding into the intimate story in unexpected ways. More than a portrait of a family, it’s also a snapshot of the 1970s Mexico, made by someone who looks back at the place he grew up in with affection but no rose-tinted glasses, and a frank view of the power dynamics between the social classes.
There are many memorable scenes in Roma of both trivial and dramatic nature: Sofia’s husband parking his wide-bodied car in a narrow space with excruciating care; chaotic Christmas at a hacienda with its upstairs/downstairs celebrations, which turns even more chaotic when both adults and children rush to put out a forest fire; an earthquake that rocks a hospital nursery; macabre display of the countless heads of house owner’s dead dogs mounted on the walls; a student protest that turns into a shocking massacre. If there’s any drawback to Cuarón’s serene meditative approach and beautifully composed images, it’s that they make Roma feel ever so slightly remote, an art object to be admired from a distance rather than take to heart. This however didn’t prevent the movie from being an engrossing experience.