Roma from Alfonso Curaon is a slice of life look at the everyday happenings in 1970’s Mexico. Set against the backdrop of the House of Sofia, housemaid Cleo is the glue that binds a broken family. Premiering on Netflix on December 17, Roma is in a limited theatrical release now.
I wrote a piece for the Phoenix Film Festival this week about my very first year of film writing as I explained my first experience of trying to get into an advanced screening of another film, the feeling and exuberance of being able to define myself.
Expanding this week to Phoenix and other markets ahead of its global launch on Netflix on December 14, Oscar – winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma feels very much like a look at my own journey.
Set in late 1970 and early 1971, Roma is the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a maid to a wealthy Mexico City family comprised of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) a doctor, her mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia) and the four, young children.
Curaon uses the family as the centerpiece of the film, as we move throughout the home. An early scene shows the quiet stillness of the morning as we follow Cleo throughout the house, waking up the children and getting them ready for their day. Curaon, who also shot his own film, uses a smooth pan circling the home as we follow Cleo creating the illusion that we are Cleo.
Early in Roma, we get the sense that Cleo is much more than a maid to the family; she has a matronly quality about her that allows her to be close to the children. This makes the character and Aparicio’s performance very relatable to the audience. Following a play gun fight between two of the children in which one of the children is ‘dead,’ Cleo comforts the child by pretending to be dead along with him. It’s a beautiful moment in which we see just how important Cleo was to the family. There’s a calmness and a serenity about Cleo which Curaon uses in the early scenes at the family home.
That calmness and serenity accentuates the rather dramatic entrance of Antonio, who has been away at a conference. Curaon purposely does not allow us to see the actor’s face, rather we are treated to precise maneuvering of the family’s Ford Galaxy into the narrow garage with classical music blasting and an ashtray full of spent cigarette butts. All this fanfare is much ado about nothing: Antonio is an overglorified geek.
Curaon does well to convince us that Antonio loves his family as they gather to watch a comedy special on television, but it is Cleo who really is the one the children relate the most to, even saying “I love you” as she puts them all to sleep.
Cleo, who barely says a word of her own challenges, is too reserved in her ways to say anything. She converses with her co-maid, Adela (Nancy Garcia) in their native Mextec language, but the story doesn’t dwell on their ongoing conversations.
This makes her interludes with martial arts – learning Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that much more interesting. She is intrigued when he demonstrates his learned movements in the buff, but she is not scared. There is a tense intimacy to their relations, which results in an unintended pregnancy.
Curaon uses the cinema of the time to help tell Cleo’s story. In the first, a World War II comedy is the backdrop as Cleo tells Fermin of her pregnancy. Before the end of the film, he skulks off to the bathroom, running away. The second is a sequence from the 1971 classic Marooned in which we float in space as an astronaut tries to save another. Here we get the sense that we are floating above Cleo’s story, but at the same time, it is a pivotal moment in the lives of the children who must endure the realization that the family will never be the same.
In a way, Cleo will never be the same either. First, she goes off with the family to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a lavish, sprawling estate. It is here where the class distinction shines through as guns are shot off in wild abandon as children run around wildly, with no fears. In a scene reminiscent of the lower decks in Titanic, Cleo enjoys the festivities of the people with her friends and relatives discussing the recent land rights tensions that mar both the wealthy and the poor.
Before that night is up, the forest erupts in fire. As the guests rush to put it out, a countdown and a song ring in the New Year. Cleo eventually tracks down Fermin, who violently protests her claims that he is the father of their unborn child. Curaon uses this to set up the third act, but it also really reveals just how alone Cleo was in this encounter.
At the same time, the scene where she encounters Fermin and his soundly violent rejection of her really sets up who Cleo is, emotionally. Curaon uses the violence of the Mexican revolution in the streets below a muebleteria to carry the Fermin story thread to its logical conclusion. As the violence in the street breaks out, a couple on the run from the student demonstrators seeks shelter in the store as a band of rebels follows them in, executing them.
It is here where we see Cleo in a vulnerable state as her water breaks in the store. They rush her to the hospital as best as they can, given the violence in the streets. Curaon’s masterful handling of the camera in the delivery room conveys all we need to know about Cleo and this struggle in her life.
The third act is where we see the broken parts of the House of Sofia and Cleo’s life come back together. Sofia formally tells the children of their marital problems and to get away from the distractions, they go to the beach in the aforementioned Ford Galaxy.
There is a sense of release and relief in the events at the beach, first the sunburn as the kids refuse to listen to their mom despite a cloudy first day. Of course, I did the same thing to my mom when I was a kid and we would visit relatives in Arizona.
Water is a constant theme and is the driving force in the third act as Cleo who’s life-saving efforts at the beach really brings home the “slice of life” aspect that Curaon gives audiences who are willing to take this journey with him. As much as it is about the everyday happenings of life, it is also keenly aware of death at any moment.
Roma is as much an homage to his home country. The drama that happens is a backdrop to the zen feeling we get as Cleo’s story unfolds. The drama weighs the zen feeling down a bit too much for this slice of life to be perfection but it is beautiful to look at.
Now in a limited theatrical release and premiering on Netflix on December 14, Roma is rated R.