In a taped message before the screening of Roma at AFIFest, director Alfonso Cuarón noted that it was based on memories from his childhood in Mexico City in 1971, and called it “a love letter to the women who raised me.” This is a very personal film for Cuarón. Here, we sense, he is revealing a part of his very soul.
The film is set in a middle-class family. The father, a doctor, abandons the family not far into the film. The mother continues to tell the children he is doing research in Canada. The central character of the film is not exactly part of the family, but the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It is Cleo that we follow through her daily routine, her growing romance, and the tragedies that befall her.
Because it is based on childhood memories, this film is really not so much about plot (although there is an overarching storyline) as it is about showing us Cleo’s life—a life much different than the privileged people in the family. No doubt, it is only as an adult that Cuarón has fully recognized the distinction between his family and their servant.
There are scenes that are full of humor. The father’s prize possession is the big family car. It barely fits into the home’s courtyard (which is constantly filled with dog feces). We watch his careful routine for getting the car in and out. That car, in time, will become the surrogate for the mother’s ire at her absent husband.
There are also tragic scenes. One scene, dealing with the birth of a stillborn child is especially heartbreaking, not just in the subject matter, but in the way Cuarón has filmed it, with both a sense of detachment and of pathos. Still other scenes provide a high level of suspense.
The mood of the film is enhanced by the astonishing black and white cinematography. (Cuarón served as cinematographer for the film.) I’m pleased that I was able to see this film on a big screen. I have no doubt that the story will be just as powerful when it plays on Netflix in a few weeks, but the beauty of the film is best appreciated in a theater so the emotional force can engulf the viewer.
The film carries a child’s conception of the world that does not yet know about class distinction. As viewers we know there is a lot of difference between Cleo and the family members, but for a child, she would just be someone who was always there and always loved. She is even willing to risk her own life to save the children in her care. But even so, we know that in the end, she will always have an inferior place within the family and in society at large. Perhaps this film serves as a bit of penance for Cuarón as he considers the extent to which society treats people like Cleo as something less than the valuable persons they are.
Roma is Mexico’s official entry for Oscar consideration as Best Foreign Language Film. After playing in select theaters, it will stream on Netflix.
Photos courtesy of Netflix