Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Roma, hit Netflix last week to much acclaim. The film centers around Cleo, a young maid and nanny to a rich family in Mexico City in 1970-71. Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, is a reserved and timid person whose main duties revolve around caring for the four children of a wealthy doctor, Antonio, and his wife. Cleo works alongside another maid, Adela, whom she lives with in a small apartment next to the main house.
Roma is Strong but Leaves Room for Improvement
Most of the film is a quiet and nostalgic look at Cleo’s life. It examines her relationship with the family – mainly the wife after her husband leaves and brief moments with the children. The children are all between the ages of about four and twelve and seem to love Cleo like family. It also briefly explores her relationship with Adela and the young, childlike moments they have in their apartment when they’re not caring for the family. Finally, it also details her relationship with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young man from the slums that trains daily in martial arts. While not together long, their relationship leads to many important parts of the film.
The film, shot in black and white, explores Cleo’s life during the backdrop of political unrest in Mexico City. Roma never fully immerses itself into the unrest, but nevertheless impacts the characters and the story in crucial ways. While only at the forefront of the film for a moment, the Halconazo massacre of 1971 provides a pivotal turn in the film. It offers a brief glimpse of how such an event can affect people, even ones not directly involved in the conflict. Cuarón does a great job of making the tension high, but not focusing so much on this moment that it overtakes the importance of Cleo and her day-to-day world.
Visually, the film feels very restrained, using a lot of medium shots and pans to keep the action in one space – mainly the home. In many ways, this reflects the reality of Cleo, being stuck mostly in the home, with only a few ventures out. Cuarón stays away from close-ups or shots that make the setting feel confined or claustrophobic but still makes the setting restrained and masterfully keeps the pace of the film slow, taking a true look at the day to day life of this family. The film sets the tone – melancholic and at times burdensome – very clearly, without the help of music which only appears at the credits. Cuarón is a very skilled director and this movie showcases his style well. It differs from the shaky, hand-held motion of Children of Men, but maintains the masterful visuality that Cuarón pulls off so well.
However, while I enjoyed the film, I think that Cuarón could have done so much more with Cleo. She is a very passive protagonist. The look at her life, while interesting, leaves a lot to be desired. Cuarón had the opportunity to really give new light to this trope of the quiet and devoted nanny but did not do much to up-end it in the slightest. The major events – including her pregnancy and the Halconazo massacre – happen to her, not because of her.
She makes no major decisions and has little personal opinions about what happens to, or around, her. I think Cuarón could have done a better job of filling out her life with backstory and her hopes and dreams. Cleo is supposedly based on his real-life childhood nanny and I feel that he could have done more justice to her by filling out her personality more. By making the conflict between her and Fermin – the main antagonistic force in the film – stronger, Cuarón would have given Cleo more autonomy, instead of relying on others throughout the film.
Last Word on Roma
Overall, Roma is definitely worth a watch. For many people, this is not a world that is familiar, so it offers keen insight. The film is based on Cuarón’s own childhood and I think that it feels honest and real because of that. The film’s pace is slow and definitely takes a while to build but is worth it. However, I don’t think that it is the best picture of the year and the lack of development in Cleo’s character left a lot to be desired.