Roma is a portrait of a disintegrating family as told by a shy, unobtrusive observer.
That observer is the camera of director Alfonso Cuaron (Oscar winner for Gravity), who based this movie on his own Mexico City family (Roma is one of its neighborhoods), circa 1971. Much of the movie is a child’s eye view of things, shaded in black and white to capture a mood of history mixed with memory.
We look on as though peering around the corner of a couch, as a little person might — tentative, baffled, maybe a little frightened at what transpires. Amid the hustle and bustle of daily life, there are clues that the well-to-do family is fraying, and when the father (Fernando Grediaga) leaves for a physician’s conference, we are not surprised that his trip becomes indefinite.
The mother (Marina de Tavira) slowly unravels, but the household never misses a beat. The daily work of managing and maintaining the home is performed by servants, including Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who lives in a small room above the garage, where the father’s nightly failure to maneuver his oversize Ford into the small parking area becomes a symbol of domestic frustration and misalignment.
The curious eye of the camera ultimately settles — quietly and affectionately — on Cleo, and as the family is buffeted by the distractions of the failing marriage, she adds protective and affectionate mothering to the family’s four children to her list of chores, no extra charge.
It’s Cuaron’s fervent wish that we see this and acknowledge it, and so he gradually makes Cleo the subject of Roma. When she leaves the house, we follow her, on dates with boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who is training in the martial arts. In one rather startling scene, Fermin disrobes, grabs a curtain rod, and performs a stark-naked Bruce Lee routine as Cleo watches. It is a full-frontal portrait of a young fellow rather full of himself, and though we wish Cleo well in her search for romance, we sense she could have made a better choice.
In fact, she spends much of the second half of the movie searching out Fermin, finally locating him in a training center in the desert, where Cuaron pauses to show a scene of a self-styled martial arts guru (and evident fraud) delivering an inspirational speech to the rapt students.
The men in the movie are as irresponsible as they are self-important, and the burden of their failure is felt by the women, particularly those like Cleo, bound by class and caste restrictions (she and the staff speak indigenous Mixtec, their employers Spanish. The dialogue is subtitled).
Cleo endures much. Fate deals her a wrenching blow, an event presented with graphic intensity by Cuaron. We barely catch our breath before he follows it with an indelible seaside moment formed by intertwined tension and tenderness. It leads to the film’s iconic image — the huddled family forming a human pyramid, a sort of Iwo Jima of resilience (the movie often feels like a vintage photograph). It’s apt, but also intricately and obviously arranged, and calls attention to the way Cuaron’s long-take, no-cut approach requires elaborate choreography.
Sometimes this feels like artifice, but the emotions are real enough, and Cuaron’s tribute to Cleo, and to women like her, is heartfelt. She’s the last thing we see, a long and lingering shot of a woman, carrying laundry, ascending a staircase. I don’t know if the stairway goes all the way to heaven, but it’s clearly where Cuaron thinks she belongs.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. With Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Gurrero, and Fernando Grediaga. Distributed by Netflix.
Parents guide: R (violence)
Running time: 135 minutes