Roma is the intimate story of a live-in housekeeper and the family that surrounds her in Mexico City. In spite of the film’s narrow purview, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical story teems with life.
Roma takes place in Roma (go figure), a neighborhood in Mexico City in the early ‘70s. The aforementioned housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is responsible for maintaining the household. Cleo is seen cooking, cleaning, and most crucially, caring for the family’s four children. When the film begins, Cleo’s employers, mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) are in a crumbling marriage. Before long, Antonio abandons the family and leaves the film’s two central women to pick up the pieces. To complicate matters further, Cleo becomes pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. Upon learning this news, Cleo’s boyfriend rebuffs her attempts to share the burden of their unborn child, and Cleo, like Sofia, is left to shoulder the burden alone.
The central theme is clear; when men feel like they no longer need to share an obligation that they themselves committed to, it’s the unheralded women in our lives that double down to make sure life continues as if both parents were present. While Roma focuses on this subject, it makes time for the mundane (a trip to the movies), the political (a protest leading to a riot), and the spectacular (a fire at an estate). Our lives are a collection of small tragedies and victories, and Cuarón brings this banality to fruition in a small (but decidedly not unimportant) story about a housekeeper.
Cuarón’s movie is not without its flaws, however. I felt that the first half of the two hour and 15-minute runtime dragged until I found the rhythm and pace of the story. Cuarón, who also served as cinematographer, sometimes left the camera to linger longer than necessary. This is an understandable mistake, as the movie, generally speaking, is beautifully shot. Even in black-and-white, from the bustling streets of Mexico City to the remote beaches of Tuxpan, each setting is splendid.
There has been some backlash because of the movie’s extremely limited release coinciding with its release on Netflix, but that seems like a silly reason to penalize a movie. Movie theaters have their advantages—big screens, crisp sound, and relative darkness—but they also come with $10+ tickets, talkative audiences, and people snoring, using their phone flashlight to retrieve a misplaced item, and digging ice out of the bottom of their cup (these are all things I’ve experienced in the last month, by the way). A bright living room isn’t the ideal way to see Roma, but seemingly everyone has access to a Netflix account, and when it comes to this movie, it’s better to experience it in a less than ideal environment than not at all.
Roma is an ode to the women who bear the brunt of life’s physical and emotional labor. Few movies take the time to appreciate the everyday sacrifices of the women in our lives. Roma is proof that more should.