Roma movie cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Nancy García García
Roma movie director: Alfonso Cuaron
Roma movie rating: 3.5 stars
Written, directed and shot by noted filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, created by him from his own boyhood memories, Roma unfolds like a family album. Shot in black and white, its wide frames capture the little nuances as well as the big picture, the momentous events on the street as well as the mundane stuff of everyday life, the crisis of adults as well as the fights of children, to paint a portrait of a family at the end of 1970 and entering 1971. It’s whom he puts at the centre of that portrait which makes Roma special — the family’s live-in maid, Cleo, a character who would otherwise be peripheral to those frames.
In her timid, watchful and silent presence, debutante Aparicio brings out Cleo as the beating heart of this family. From the time she wakes up the four children of the household for school, singing them ditties, to when she puts them to bed at night, telling them stories, Cleo does everything. She mops, she cooks, she cleans, she spends a big part of her day clearing shit of the family’s unloved dog, and it’s up to her to even switch off the lights at night when everyone has gone to sleep. All through, you can see her holding herself in check, except when she is with the children, who love her equally, or when she climbs up to her small quarters, up a staircase at the back. There, by the light of a candle as electricity is “not to be wasted”, she and the cook of the household stretch out, exercise, and more importantly giggle — the loudest sound they have made all through the day.
This is where the problem lies with Roma, a film that is mopping up accolades and nominations in the award season. Cuaron, the director of films as diverse as Gravity to Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men, clearly means Roma as a tribute to the help who raised him in childhood. However, the film ultimately is Cleo as seen through his eyes. She exists to serve the family, and her existence beyond it is referred to only in passing. The family loves her, sure, and she is devoted to them, but the roles are clearly defined. Nothing shows this more than one telling scene where the family is watching TV, and Cleo is serving, clearing with one eye on the screen herself. The moment she sits down too, with one of the boys putting a loving arm around her, she is sent off to fetch tea by the mistress, Sofia (Tavira). The scene’s more cruel for being so casual; it’s more jarring for how Cleo is to accept it uncomplaining. The film is honest about how it may have actually been for Cleo only once or twice, when the father, and the mother, lash out over a small thing.
Sure Cleo has her own crises, including a pregnancy, and the government taking over her mother’s land at their village. But this registers as hardly a ripple in the ebb and tide of the family life. Cuaron records the latter, on the other hand, with intimate yet sparse detail, particularly the portrait of the man of the household as the absentee father (Grediaga). The scene of him parking his big Galaxy car in the narrow garage with exquisite care is a work of art. Cuaron’s direction speaks the world, without any words, for the cruel and comical men in both Cleo and her mistress’s life.
It’s ultimately this bond, of men who love and leave, that unites Cleo more closely to the family than anything that came earlier. But this woman in those turbulent times of student unrest and martial crackdowns in Mexico City, who wades into the sea to save children who aren’t hers, who bears a child out of wedlock, who tries to confront a man who wouldn’t have her, and who has so much love to give, surely has more to say. Roma isn’t her voice.