Roma is a movie that plays out much like the passing of life. Yes, there are dramatic moments. Yes there is high emotion. But each moment leads on to the next, unending. Movies tend to slow down time or speed it up depending on the emotional impact they want the narrative to have. It takes brave direction to instead show things as they are and let the performances and events tell themselves. And yet that is the approach that lauded director Alfonso Cuarón has taken.
Cuarón is a Mexican director best known for transitioning the Harry Potter franchise into darker territory with ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’. He directed the Oscar nominated dystopian movie ‘Children of Men’, and also the Oscar winning visual extravaganza of ‘Gravity’. Much of his big name work has been expansive and full of action, which makes the subdued and personal tale of Roma all the more striking.
Roma is a semi-autobiographical tale set in Mexico City in the early 70s. We follow Cleo, a humble and hardworking maid who works for a middle class family. The movie opens with a static shot of some apparently ornate tiling as the opening credits slowly progress, until it becomes clear that this is simply the corridor of the family’s home that is being methodically scrubbed by Cleo. She sloshes the water down the drain before working her way through the large home, clearing up as she goes. Cuarón (who also wrote, co-edited, and shot the movie) follows her with assured normality as she goes about her chores, setting the tone for much of the movie. We follow Cleo, ever watching, as life unfurls around her.
To talk about what Roma is about from a pure story point of view would do the movie a disservice. Things happen, certainly. But the calm and semi-detached way that Cuarón presents these visuals, in black and white no less, makes the movie an almost meditative experience. She clearly loves the children under her care and (tellingly) is the one who kisses them goodnight and bids them good morning. They bicker and fight. They argue about every task and whose turn it is to do things (or not). The whole movie is the very epitome of ‘slice of life’.
However, another way that Cuarón achieves this zen-like overview of Cleo and the family she works for is by deliberately pushing into the background what other directors would have made major moments. The father, whose introduction to the movie with a burning cigarette between his fingers, is his slow and methodical parking of a too large vanity car in a too small driveway. He soon leaves for an apparent business trip to Quebec. But it’s clear from the mother’s reactions that all is not as it appears. When he later flits past his children outside a cinema (who are out stealing looks at magazines with half-naked women) with an obvious mistress in tow, the moment is barely lingered on. “Wasn’t that your Dad?” a friend asks. The shot continues, regardless.
Similarly, the backdrop of 1970s Mexico is a realistic depiction of how people experience politics, through snatched background conversations or whispered rumours. At a well-to-do bourgeois party where guests gleefully fire guns over a lake, there are mutters of ‘land grabs’ and Cleo learns that her own family’s land is being taken by the government. A march of less than a dozen people parping on trumpets stomps past the family home ever so often. A trip to buy new furniture lands the family smack in the middle of the bloody Corpus Cristi student massacre. Big things are afoot, but these aren’t the main focus for Cuarón. With achingly beautiful direction he prefers to focus on Cleo as a working class person simply getting by.
Cleo (played by non-actress, Yalitza Aparicio) has much more personal troubles. Being scolded for not clearing up dog crap littering the family drive way, for one. As a character she speaks little, but by the camera following her throughout the movie the audience’s empathy is expertly elicited. In a seemingly sweet scene, she enjoys some intimacy with her boyfriend. Yes, he feels the need to pull down a shower curtain rail to show her his carefully practiced (and naked) martial arts, but his poverty makes him apparently sympathetic. Until Cleo falls pregnant that is, and he vanishes without a trace. She carries on, of course, as she must. But that doesn’t make an intense scene where she suddenly goes into labour any less heartwrenching.
Roma is a movie made by a visual director who has consciously decided to hover a little over events so they almost play out like a documentary. It’s a step back look at how life simply was for both middle class and working class people at the time, whilst also using that as a reason to gently present a snapshot of Mexican history. With quiet expertise, Cuarón has delivered a breathtaking movie that doesn’t need to be so gaudy as to proclaim itself. This is an experience more than a movie. Whilst such an approach might not be to everyone’s taste, the movie is a fantastic example of how to engage with a story that isn’t a story.
Words by Michael Record