‘ROMA,’ Alfonso Cuaron’s Empathic Masterpiece

Though nearly colossally screwing up its release, Netflix has a bonafide Best Picture favorite on its hands with Alfonso Cuaron’s ode to the most important figure of his youth.

The first sound you hear in Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film, is the low thundering roar of a jet engine. The slow rush is a bell ringing through the long night of pre-modern society, announcing the onset of painful, historic gestation and metamorphosis being brought to the country below, Mexico.

In their own way, each of Cuarón’s 21st century films have stood on the precipice of the monumental, whether narrative, emotional or meta-textual. Children of Men is the most obvious, with Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashity’s characters calmly shepherding a new world through the old’s ruined wasteland. Sandra Bullock’s restrained, tentative scientist is shoved off of Gravity‘s ledge and forced to intuit her way to the ground, literally. Even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stands as a necessary inflection point between Chris Columbus’ pre-teen frivolity and David Yates’ dour, washed-out teenage wasteland. Trite commentary, yes, but that Cuarón’s movies take place at critical cultural moments both inside and outside their movie worlds is a vocabulary taken from his own experience.

The artist is dead, so to speak. A work exists outside of the intended purpose of the artist the minute it is released from its developmental quantum state and exhibited to the viewing public. The historical context given to Roma’s existence plays just as important a role as Netflix’s unconscionable bumbling of the movie’s release. The whole picture is indivisible as an entity onto itself.


Roma is different, a totem of some historical accuracy whose credibility and bona fides bear sweeter fruit the more intently one digs into how the movie was made. Roma is a profound outlier, one that explains so much of Cuarón’s transformative worldview that it would be impossible not to touch on the artist’s paintbrush while simultaneously discussing the oil slashed across the canvas by it.

Instead of rote narcissism or bland autobiographical ripping (Sleepwalk with Me and Obvious Child have not aged well), Roma maintains a distance from its creator that both enables a non-metatextual reading of the movie and belies the craftsmanship required to make it. I’m dodging around the point, but that’s only because Roma’s extra-textual publicity and actual text dodge around each other as well.

This is likely because the text of Roma walks a very neat tightrope. The story, presented by Cuarón with minimal notation to his own presence in the story (one of the smaller boys plays a simulacrum of Cuarón as a pre-teen), focuses on Cleo, one of the maids in a large manse in the Colonia Roma region of Mexico City. Cleo, played with disarming grace by heretofore non-actor Yalitza Aparicio, silently stitches together the fraying threads of the domicile, whether that’s the occasional meal, the cleanliness of patriarch Antonio’s car, or the care and facilitation of play and school with Antonio and wife Sofia’s four children.

Cleo’s impossibly small smile initially bounces off of Sofia’s well kept, upper class exterior. The makings of class warfare aren’t unintentional, as the tumultuous first two years of the 1970s in Mexico provide evident cultural backgrounding for Cuarón’s intimate, familial dichotomy. Yet to insist that Cuarón’s lens (for the first time both as director and cinematographer) is trained solely on Cleo’s together but unequal standing with the family would levy too glib a boom upon Roma, a movie with at once far more personal, and universal, interests on its mind. Sofia and Cleo (and Sofia’s tradionalist mother, Sra. Teresa) are at once different and all the same, disregarded as the world morphs and yet taken advantage of every step of the way.


Antonio’s philandering breaks early. So, too, does Cleo’s unplanned pregnancy by martial artist Fermín. Each twist is given its own minor key reveal, tossed off in a movie theater or dismissed as yet another trip to Quebec. Cuarón uses cliches as a cudgel against his protagonists, a perverse dramatic irony to have the methodical Cleo, Sofia and Teresa realize their predicaments long after those watching. The irony lends Roma a necessary sense of early drama, without which the movie might have felt listless or overly romantic. In the hands of Cuarón and his trio of stunning actors (Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Verónica Garcia), Roma is like watching the foundation shift from under the family property: Inevitable, sorrowful, bone deep.

The weight of history bears down on Roma in ways both deft and dreadful. Cuarón never allows too much of expositional Mexican history to wind its way into the dialog of the film; the most context clues the audience gets for civil unrest are Cleo’s trip to see Fermín in the countryside and almost inaudible background chatter at a friend’s home for New Year’s Eve. Yet tumult forces its way into Cleo and Sofia’s lives like poison — the military interrupting a last-ditch plea for love, a fire burning the countryside during a party.

Cuarón injects lively humor into the societal context of the film, as if to only slightly throw the viewer off the dreadful march Roma clearly makes toward its emotional climaxes. As Cleo journeys to find the disappeared Fermín, she passes by a carnival, hardly witnessing a man being blasted out of a cannon. And when she finds Fermín, not so much disappeared as delinquent, it is in the middle of the desert at a giant physical training seminar of martial artists. While the art promotes inner peace, Cleo is treated to Fermín’s violent posturing, a threat to stay away from him and his “mission.”

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