Roma, a movie that was released both in theaters and on Netflix by seasoned director Alfonso Cuarón on November 21 is many things: a masterful demonstration of filmmaking technique; a memoir of growing up in a middle-class suburb of Mexico City (Roma); an acute and meticulous rendering of Mexico during the social and political unrest of the 1970s; a poetic tribute to the indigenous woman, Cleo, who helped raise the Mexican filmmaker; and finally, a breathtaking reminder of the significance of those who surround and support others with often unnoticed strength and purpose. It is at once both sprawling and intimate, heroic and human.
Shot entirely in widescreen black and white, the film covers the gamut of human emotion: hope, acceptance, fury, love, and betrayal. The fact that not one actor in this film is well-known reinforces the universality of this story and the anonymity of the characters portrayed; the lead actress, Yalitza Aparicio, was discovered at an open casting call, and this is her first acting job. Before Roma, Aparicio was working as a schoolteacher in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca.
The film begins by tracking Cleo’s daily routine throughout the house. She sweeps, cleans, scrubs and folds laundry by hand, and prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The camera pans across long shots of her day, cutting to each chore she performs as she moves through the house. Her actions appear unremarkable, but she deftly navigates the household and the conflicting familial emotions within it. Cleo goes about her life with no extra sense of drama or flare. She lives simply, and though it may not be riveting to those who look on, it is still a life of value.
Caurón tells Cleo’s story honestly and without any desire to overcompensate. Roma moves slowly and carefully. It is not a film experience for the impatient, but for those willing to wait. But despite its length, Roma is entirely captivating. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a movie without wanting to look away for even an instant. The movie takes its time—there is no denying that. But there is a reason for its slow pace. By introducing Cleo’s character to the screen, Cuarón is breaking the traditional idea that films need to be “entertaining” in order to tell a story that people will enjoy. Cuarón shows us the truth, and by doing so, the audience is able to fall in love with the story and its heroine, not for their flashy dramatizations of life, but for their authenticity.
There is turbulence in this household, which the audience recognizes at the same time Cleo does: her watchful eyes and omniscient presence pick up the details of an unhappy marriage. There are fights over housekeeping, complaints about extended business trips, and tears behind closed doors. When the couple breaks apart, Cleo is the one who tries to help the children move forward. She is the one who sings to them in the morning and tucks them under the covers at night. The family clearly depends on Cleo not just to cook and clean, but to provide emotional stability.
Ever-watchful and ever-vigilant, Cleo survives the trauma of her employers’ lives, her personal tragedies, and the social disruption caused by the student protests against the government that spills into the nearby streets and threatens her and the family for which she feels responsible. Cleo does not do anything sensational—her actions and words are minimal—but she is a force of nature not only to the family she cares for but also to the audience that gets caught up and then invested in her seemingly quotidian life.
It is in the last half hour of the movie that Cuarón tips his hand and shows us the depth and breadth of this woman’s existence. I want everyone to see it, so I am not going to reveal the three scenes where Cleo transcends her ordinariness and rises above her circumstances. But she manages this while remaining wholly herself. No special effects, no feats of superhuman strength, nothing out of character but rather totally within character. It’s breathtaking to watch.
This gradual shift is subtle but transformative for both the character and the movie, and it reflects both of their triumphs: on the one hand, Roma is not about very much, but on the other, it’s about the deeply affecting impact of those who live lives not usually noted or celebrated, even by the people who most benefit from connection with them. In the same way that Cleo may appear to lead an unexceptional life but is in fact extraordinary, so, too, is Roma.