As a filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón has moved freely within different genres and styles, building up a body of work that is as impressive as it is varied. His first film that can rightly be called cinéma vérité, Roma is infused with his trademark visual sensibilities as well as a few new tricks that we haven’t seen from him before. The most obvious of these is that the film is in black and white, an unusual aesthetic choice these days, yet one that dovetails with Roma’s themes in a way that makes it feel essential. Though a Netflix movie, Roma is one of the handful that have also been exhibited at theaters. Watching it, you can see why. Alfonso Cuarón, five years out from his last film, has delivered his most personal work to date here. In a film about juxtapositions, the visual and thematic contrast go hand in hand while providing a gorgeous and timeless quality.
We follow Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) for about a year of her life as she works in the house of an absentee doctor, administering to his four rambunctious kids and his brittle-seeming wife, Sofía (Marina de Tavira). The film recounts events that mostly stem from Cuarón’s childhood memories of the real-life Cleo, a woman named Libo to whom this film is dedicated.
Roma can feel plot-less and meandering, the kind of film that isn’t really about anything in particular. Just a slice of life about a Mixtec house servant and the rich family she works for. The domestic portraiture of the film puts authenticity and memory at the center of its storytelling, but there is a story to follow and themes to absorb for attentive audiences. Plot might take a back seat, but even a mundane-seeming life eventually faces the pressures and struggles of the world at large. A world that is always at the margins, waiting to intrude.
Alongside Cleo, the audience is in a primarily observational role. We watch as this family goes about their business. We hear the unimportant and routine conversations that fill a day, see the activities of domestic life as if we’re perched on a wall somewhere. Though Roma feels specific in its time and place, there are things about both Mexico in the 70’s, and the corner of it that we see, which feel universal. The film walks a line between these sensations, showing us something personal while inviting us to see ourselves within it.
Though themes include class, race, and gender, Roma doesn’t feel like a political film but rather one interested in exploring those juxtapositions of life that may wind up being transcended by sheer living. Roma’s interest in class and race revolves around the light-skinned wealthy Mexican elites and the dark-skinned Mixtec people that serve them, providing a window into their contrasting lives and struggles that is temporarily lent to us. There’s a sense of division in the society as we see it through these characters, but it lacks the kind of prevailing enmity that would likely be present in a film more focused on this issue. Meeting life with humor in spite of anxieties about events like land seizures in Oaxaca, the Mixtec characters seem to be regular people caught up in big socio-political questions without necessarily knowing what to do or their place in them.
That said, there is a looming specter of political and social tension at the edges of conversations and events. This tension eventually collides explosively with the characters we’re coming to know, but it never takes the film over as it is simply beyond the scope of the “small” life Cleo is leading. If the film has an ethos, it’s that no life is small, that feeling that way is really a question of proximity. Getting so close to even a mundane, normal life like Cleo’s makes every struggle feel bigger than a war.
Similar to the themes of class and race, Roma explores gender without feeling especially message-driven. These themes are part of the portrait of women’s lives that Roma provides, showing how common struggles like pregnancy, child-rearing, and unreliable men can at least temporarily erase the arbitrary divisions of race or class. Cleo’s life becomes complicated and her observational, detached role starts to crumble even as the carefully maintained life Sofía leads becomes untenable. Watching these two women brush up against the class division, grasping to either justify it or transgress it, becomes exactly the kind of compelling focus on the personal that Roma excels at.
In a sense, Roma may not be so much about juxtaposition as it is an exploration of the divisive illusion that it represents in our lives. Love triumphing over division is usually a sweeping, romantic theme and it’s no different in Roma, especially when the filmmaking embraces those sensibilities. The storytelling may seem prosaic, but the heart of this film is really in those moments where it sets the mundane against a stirring backdrop and lets that contrast tell us everything about a life.