By Iskender Tavaldiev
Roma is one of the most personal and authentic auteur films by Alfonso Cuaron. Set at the beginning of the 70s in Colonia Roma in Mexico, it shows the hardships of the middle-class Mexican family through the perspective of their maid, Cleo.
If I told you the film was about family, motherhood, violence, and “invisible” but important people in our lives, I wouldn’t be lying. At the same time, everything is packed so well with beautiful black and white cinematography, sound, and the screenplay that are cooped up in incredibly smart and well-thought-out storytelling from Cuaron. The film is almost a semi-autobiography; most ideas came from the childhood of young Alfonso. It goes without saying that he would be the main man behind the film as he directed, shot and wrote it himself; he even took part in co-editing and co-producing it.
It is important to note that the film is slow-paced and intimate with very careful attention to our characters: the mother – Sofia, her four children, and most importantly their maid Cleo. Obviously, the ability of the film to take things slow and showing viewers only important things little by little, one after another works for good. In this particular genre of family drama, intimacy and some asceticism are very important for believability. If there was at least one over-dramatization, one unreasonable extra ingredient, the audience would not buy it, but Alfonso Cuaron feels the narrative like an artist feels his painting.
The way the film’s cinematography and most importantly its sound helps its audience to keep up with the story and get the ideas is very unique. The film is about women and the hardships of motherhood, whether you are a mother of four or a grandmother of four or just some shy, unnoticed, and unheard maid (which will later be proven wrong). All our central women are absolutely alone, and we can break the narrative into two parts: inside and outside. The things that happen inside and outside are quite important here, and they are represented brilliantly with the sounds, camera work and the storytelling of the movie. Inside: we only see the father two times.
First, when he comes home in a car that barely fits in the house, like his ego and desire for “some fun” that just wouldn’t fit when you are in a family with four kids. Second, when he leaves for the “conference.” He never comes back… We do get a glimpse of him “having fun” with a random girl, but he is not the “father” anymore. The fact that the father has left the family is not told to us directly, Cuaron deliberately treats its audience like children seriously making us believe the father is only gone for the “conference” leaving us curious about the fate of the father. That we later realize through overhearing parts of the conversation of the Mother. We are always assuming. We see the mother sad, we see her hiding and talking to grandma about something important, we hear through the door her silently crying and talking over the phone about father, and all of that only backfires on poor kids as they start to misbehave and just struggle.
Outside: we see the life of our adorable Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio was amazing). The camera is always on the move with her. She gets pregnant and of course, her man literally vanishes the moment she says she’s pregnant. While our mother Sofia is always caught with a steady shot with either the military in the background or the students marching (student riots in Mexico 1971). We feel the ongoing tension in the city with sirens and military on the streets that we don’t see, but hear. Our women feel that too. Cuaron makes it clear – women are the strongest and the most important source of our lives. At the same time as riots are happening on the streets of Mexico, while men are taking human lives, the women in the hospital are giving them (Cleo), and later preserving those lives and families even when left alone (Sofia). Beautiful sequence…
Interestingly enough, talking about the irresponsibility of men as fathers, Alfonso Cuaron by accident makes a case by his own example of how irresponsible fathers affect their kids in the long term, as Cuaron himself was divorced twice. He may not blame his father for his divorces directly, however, in the end, he dedicates his work, not to his father, but to his mom and his housekeeper/nanny Libo (characterized as “Cleo” in the movie). Since the film is a pure expression of Cuaron’s childhood; “Roma” is expressed through his love and respect for the important women in his life and at the same time the movie is distinct with some mockery and hostility towards men.
Without spoilers, the culmination point will absolutely blow you away, as they all go to the sea, and they never return as the same people. They go there undefined. They come back as a family.