ROMA Review: An Overwhelming Vision of Intimate Power

Alfonso Cuarón sees an entire society in one woman’s story.

I don’t know how Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie is able to exist. Roma is vibrant and electric, and startlingly intimate. Cuarón’s follow-up to Gravity is rooted in the filmmaker’s own past, but he opts for reflection rather than nostalgia. Detail in Roma is sharp and abundant; there’s no soft haze of film grain. This is an eyes-wide-open stroll down memory lane, crafted with attention given to every possible element.

Roma is the story of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class Mexico City family inspired by Cuarón’s own upbringing. Through Cleo’s story Roma looks at entire social structures as they relate to upheaval in the capital city in the early ‘70s. Which, oh my god, sounds so dry and boring that I regret writing that sentence even though it’s true, because this movie is loud and funny and sad and so very alive.

Cleo exists in a space that is effectively in between. She cares for a family, but is not a member. Her employer, Sofia, emphasizes that division in small ways, as when she creates a task for Cleo just as the maid gets comfortable watching television with the family. Sofia might as well say “you’re not one of us,” but she doesn’t have to — everything about Cleo’s life reinforces the notion.

Which isn’t to say that Sofia is inhuman. Her life is in upheaval. So much of Mexico City in Roma seems to be falling apart. Sofia’s family is clearly unstable. Her husband, Antonio, is often absent. He’s introduced through long close-ups of his absurdly large car, a Ford Galaxie which can only be maneuvered into the family driveway with great patience and fine control — which Antonio applies to the car, but not to his family. Despite the constant work by Cleo and the family’s other maid, Adela, the household barely hangs together. The dog shits everywhere. Everywhere, constantly. Students demonstrate in the streets. Riots erupt. The very Earth shakes, to tragic effect. This movie bursts with life and power and movement.

At the center is Yalitza Aparicio, a non-professional actor, playing Cleo. She’s spectacular. Aparicio is often quiet and reserved, and she lets us see the ways that Cleo’s professional life necessarily flows into her personal life. She seems to be in between no matter the scenario. There are moments where Cleo almost breaks open into unrestrained emotion. Her struggle to repress laughter when a man performs a naked martial arts routine is absolutely wonderful — but we can also see the danger in that moment, and Cuarón makes very clear that the risks involved in stepping outside her zone, especially when not invited to do so, can be significant.  

So Cleo and Adela, the family’s other maid, speak to one another in their native Mixtec, rather than Spanish. When we hear Cleo singing one child to sleep with a Mixtec lullaby, the moment feels like both an expression of tenderness and a tiny rebellion.

All of Roma’s interior struggles are reflected and amplified in the city around the characters. The streets are loud. Roma vibrates with noise as parades and demonstrations rattle through the streets; waves crash so insistently at the beach that they cannot be ignored; a hospital delivery room has the clamor of bedlam. This is where I can see the insistence on seeing Roma on the big screen having legitimacy; a projection space equipped with Dolby Atmos is not essential to understanding this film, but it is most definitely a benefit.

While Roma is made for Netflix, the flow of information in every frame reveals Cuarón’s vision of the film as a big-screen experience. A handful of ultra-wide, roaming tableaux recall rare landmarks such as La Dolce Vita as they depict tension points that affect a cross-section of the film’s characters. A fire erupts during a holiday party, and the varying responses illustrate more than any dialogue could. An outdoor martial arts training ground suggests that a whole swath of one generation of young men is childish and ready to be co-opted by the violent paramilitary Institutional Revolutionary Party.

When one particular truth about a character is revealed, the delivery is glancing. A shouted name, a flash of movement through the frame. But the effect is seismic. The moment almost begs to be rewound so it can be experienced again — so it can be verified. Since Roma will be seen by most people on Netflix, that is, I suppose, a possibility. I would advise against that, at least on first viewing, because the revelation isn’t merely a display of Cuaron’s virtuosic command, but an example of how this film understands a fleeting aspect of experience.

One of the powerful moments occurs early on, when Cleo has to parent the family’s youngest child who, “playing dead” on the roof, refuses to get up. She joins him, laying down with her head against his. “I like being dead,” she says, as the camera rises and pans to see several other women just like her, going about similar tasks — doing their own laundry as the same dog barks and the same kids yell and play. Roma is not an individual story; in its image of Cleo’s experience it pays attention and honor to an entire segment of society which often fades into the landscape. Roma is grand and epic, but sweetly, even painfully personal. This is an exceptional movie, powerful and stark, and beautiful.