What would the trailer for your life look like? I ask because
if you’ve seen the trailers for Alfonso Cuarón’s
personal-yet-universal story Roma, you’re probably no
closer to understanding what the film is about. Well, it’s
about life, which pretty much describes every movie, though
there’s never been a movie like this.
The plot – lives don’t have plots, but we need to talk about
this somehow – centres on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two
maids of an upper-middle-class family in Mexico in the early
1970s. (Similarities to the 57-year-old writer/director’s life
are intentional; the film is dedicated to Libo, the real-life
Cleo.) Part of the sprawling underclass of Mexican society,
Cleo speaks Spanish to her employers, and Mixtec to Adela, the
other maid. Every country in the Americas has its First
Cleo also has a boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who
is more interested in martial artistry than matters of the
heart. In fact, the men in this movie have a way of
disappearing after being hardly there in the first place. If a
ghost could ghost, that would describe the behaviour of Dr.
Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who departs mid-picture, leaving
his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), with four children, a dog
and a Ford Galaxy. She takes her frustrations out on the car. I
really felt for that car.
Cleo helps with the kids; there’s a clear bond here that
transcends the service contract, and when the maid runs into
problems with her boyfriend, Sofia, a weekend Communist,
doesn’t hesitate to pitch in and help.
Cuarón expertly weaves leitmotifs into his picture without them
becoming overwhelming; the long, soothing, immersive opening
shot introduces water and aircraft, both of which will return
throughout the film. Water, in particular, is an important
element, the stuff we would soon die without, and in some cases
die within. But its inclusion is natural, flowing from the
story rather than being “cleverly” piped into it.
And if you love movies within movies, you’ll get a kick out of
the occasional entertainment enjoyed by this family. One scene
in a cinema features a bonkers Franco-British Second World War
comedy called La Grande Vadrouille (literally “the big
mop”). Another made me realize that Cuarón’s last film, the
2013 best-picture nominee Gravity, was, in fact, a
stellar remake of 1969’s Marooned.
It’s worth noting here that Roma deserves to be seen
on a big screen if at all possible. Netflix is doing a limited
theatrical release before and in some cities concurrent with
its streaming release. Shot in luminous black and white, it
features many scenes that fill the screen as the camera tracks
along a street or captures an intriguing balancing trick you’ll
want to try at home. (Notice which character manages to do it
most easily, and what that says about her.)
Similarly, Roma’s soundscape will tax even the best
home-entertainment setup; I was in awe of the thunderous waves
when the family visits a secluded beach, though also gripping
the armrests in terror at the thought that the kids might
venture more than a few feet past the shoreline.
So what’s it about? It’s about two-and-a-quarter hours, and not
a minute wasted. It’s about the quiet figure of Cleo, buffeted
by the forces of history – Mexico’s student protests loom
large, as do natural disasters – but ultimately the centre of
her own story, as are we all. Roma is the name of the
neighbourhood where it all takes place, but spell it backwards
and translate it into English. It’s about that, too.