Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a masterwork of film about a domestic worker of an upper middle class Mexican family in the 1970s. The film is strongly influenced by Cuaron’s childhood and his own experience with his family’s domestic workers.
Cleo, played exquisitely by Yalitza Aparicio, was even cast because she reminded Cuaron of his vivid memories of Libo the domestic helper who played an integral role in raising him. Unlike many other films about domestic help, Roma does not glorify the duty and sacrifice of women like Cleo and Libo nor does it paint a wholly negative picture of a well-off and privileged family. Much like real-life, Roma is complicated. Of course, the privileged white Mexican family isn’t always the kindest or most understanding to Cleo. Yalitza Aparicio is a tremendous actress who can convey so much nary a word or bombastic performance. A simple smile or blank stare creates a universe of emotions both powerful and small. Some criticism I’ve seen of the film laments Cleo’s seemingly passive characterization, and that the film doesn’t go deep into who she is and her own background. While I do understand this line of criticism, I do think that her complex nature is something the film would rather show than tell. Cleo is someone whom has very little power or agency within the confines of society at large, but is resilient regardless of life’s misfortunes. She is true to herself. Cleo isn’t a magical downtrodden person with a heart of gold or Hallmark movie trope; she is real, and I find that wonderfully refreshing.
I would be lying if I didn’t see a lot of my own experiences in this portrayal of complicated societal norms. By birth, I was born into a comfortable upper middle class home in the Philippines. My family is from a socioeconomic class that afforded us the ability to hire domestic workers. This is the same for Filipino families that have the benefits of private school education, money, and political power. I had the equivalent of a nanny in my youth even though we weren’t exactly rich. However, in a society in which poverty is devastatingly overwhelming, anyone with stable income can hire cheap, household labor. And while I am not painting the rosiest of pictures, the domestic workers in my family and others do become and sometimes are treated as a type of family. Like I mentioned before, it is complicated. When we left the Philippines for the US, my father helped one of our employed domestic workers immigrate a few years later. Like Cleo, Linda did things like cooking, cleaning, and, also looked after me. She would sometimes walk me home from school. During one summer, I was accepted into a science program for kids, and Linda would ride the bus with me across the city everyday. At night, she’d tuck me into bed, and I would read the Wizard of Oz out loud for the both of us. I loved her like I would love an aunt. Eventually, Linda brought over her own daughters to the US and made her own life apart from our family. I remember being hurt that she chose to leave us after all these years. However, my brother said at the time, we should be happy for her; Linda deserved to be with her own family.
The relationship between the family and their domestic workers is tangled array of class structures, societal norms, and power in the workplace. I found myself at times shaking my head at the callous way Cleo was sometimes treated. At other times, there is genuine love and affection between Cleo, Sofia, and the children. The relationship is not simple by any means. It is in that intricacy where one can find true humanity. This is a depiction of class and struggle rarely seen in films. Roma is messy because life is messy; it can be cold and tragic, but profoundly joyous and warm.
The film is presented in black and white and works in a way that today’s color corrected modern movies mostly fail to reproduce. Color films, at their worst, present complex imagery in a simplistic way. Color can do too much of the heavy lifting practically lecturing the viewer exactly what they should feel. Black and white films, at their best, present a simple image in a complex manner. The lack of color emphasizes Cleo’s struggles and the depth of her relationship with the family and the world as a whole. Stark shadows frame scenes and emotions for clarity while the bright whites and grays offer a dreamlike blank canvas in which the viewer can impart any range of emotion or pathos.
Every frame in Roma is beautiful and deep in both composition and energy. There are the wonderful dynamic dolly shots that in different parts of the film convey either joyous life or growing dread. Some shots hold so much information in both the foreground and background that one would be tempted to stop and rewatch scenes again and again. I suggest that you don’t, and allow the movie to flow as Cuaron intended. In the intimate, static, and small moments, the film gives ample room for the actors to breath and inhabit the screen. There is this wonderful scene towards the beginning of the movie in which Sofia’s husband comes home driving a huge Ford Galaxie. Everyone in the house bubbles with excitement as the husband slowly and carefully maneuvers the car with perfect precision. The man’s face is not shown for the duration of this scene, masking him in darkness. Watch for the dramatic pause before the Galaxie pulls into the cramped driveway. Is there relief that he is finally home? Or a slight hesitation? Later events provide more insight into this and many early scenes. Roma is a movie that uses every minute of its runtime to further its characters and themes. Nothing is wasted.
Great art asks us to regard the world not strictly through how we hope it can be or fear how it has become; rather, great art asks to see how this jumbled mess of a world fits together. Roma is a masterpiece in film-making that uses all the tools the medium enjoys to tell a vibrant humanistic story amid tragedy. You should watch this one.