From the moment the trailer for Roma was released, shot in black-and-white, water washing over tile as a reflected plane flew over head, the film’s quiet craft radiated to all. Roma, the follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic, Gravity, is a change of pace for the auteur.
Set in Mexico City during the 1970’s, the film centers around Cleo, a servant for an upper-class Mexican family, who becomes our eyes and ears for a world surrounded by domestic toil, and social and class upheaval. While Cuaron’s most recent films were science fiction: Gravity and Children of Men, Roma finds the director returning to Mexico for the first time since Y Tu Mamá También. The energy of Cuaron’s Mexican epic flows from his camera movements, Yalitza Aparicio‘s nuanced, yet emotionally remarkable performance, and his beautiful dream-inducing monochromatic cinematography.
The camera’s vision of the portrayed story captures Cuaron’s dream-like vision of his childhood. However, the servant, Cleo, encompasses his and our gaze. Our awareness of events only extends as far as Cleo. Servants, often treated as furniture in the background of a room, rarely enter the foreground. The foregrounding of Cleo is unique. Still, Cleo possesses a limited scope of events, such as her mistress Sofía’s (Marina de Tavira) turmoil with her husband and children. The camera mirrors this limited vision as passive and observant, yet restricted. As the troubles of the outside world breaches into this family, often with events happening before her eyes, she never panics. Cuaron’s long pans and tracking shots matches this observant passivity, while consuming the vibrancy of Mexico City.
There’s also an upstairs-downstairs effect, with Cuaron highly interested in the separation between the two classes: servant and upper-middle class. Cleo lives on the upper-adjacent level of the family home, and must often come downstairs to begin many of her chores, save washing clothes. Cuaron’s interest in Cleo’s private moments, when she prepares to sleep or shares her love life, even for today, is unique.
He could have easily portrayed Sofia’s life or his own. Sofia, a wealthy woman going through personal upheaval, such as her husband leaving her for another woman, offers a dramatic story. Until the film’s latter portions, little drama surrounds Cleo. Nevertheless, Sra Sofia occupies the periphery. Roma does not solely portray Cuaron’s childhood, but a vision of the most important person in his childhood—an underappreciated figure—making Roma a study of “excavation narrative.”
Cuaron spends the film mining the small details of his past for the larger picture. While we’re mostly insulated in Cloe’s life, there are always references toward the outside world, such as the working class’s discontent, which later leads to near revolution and panic. There are planes flying above filled with separate lives from the ones down below. But mostly, there’s life itself. As Cleo runs through the streets of Mexico City, Cuaron captures the citizens, the vendors, and the restaurants, and makes the theater the epicenter of all escapism, through his use of tracking shots. There, in the days and nights out at the movies, where Cleo dates Fermin, we feel the mood of the times. It’s also where Cuaron slips a blatant reference to Gravity.
Much like Dunkirk, Roma is an ensemble effort. Even its lead characters are short on dialogue. That will make Yalitza Aparicio‘s bid for an Academy Award difficult because the Academy doesn’t like subtly. Aparacio never has the jump on the table look at me moment that Academy voters crave, but she should be the leader in the clubhouse. It’s too simplistic to paint Aparicio’s performance as the same kind of colorlessness that invades Cuaron’s black-and-white epic. No, Aparicio provides color in the smallest, yet most tantalizing spectrum. With every smile, with every movement of her eyes, she provides the hues that are rarely valued but should be taken for silver and gold. Sometimes, showy and intense are confused with great, while quietness is taken as nothingness. Nevertheless, you’ll never catch Aparacio overacting, instead, fitting herself to the climate of the moment.
Aparicio’s performance should be classified as patient development, equivalent to the leaves changing their colors. But as days pass into nights, as we see the relationship with herself and Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero)—the man who leaves her when she becomes pregnant—and her connection with the family she serves change from servant to friend, we see the coloring of her performance become more vibrant and layered. Indeed, her reaction to Fermin practicing martial arts in the nude encapsulates Aparicio fitting herself to the moment. Her innocent fit to remain from laughing gives way to flashes of a smile entering the corners of her mouth and eyes. The pure reaction requires nuance and a sensitive level of acting. The film’s ending, another example of Aparacio finding the moment, finds Cleo wading through the ocean waters to save one of Sofia’s children. As each wave crashes against her, the steadfastness she displays, makes for a conclusion overflowing with tenderness and heart.
The same adjectives may also be applied to the cinematography by Cuaron. The film is a delicate fusion of classic and modern filmmaking: combining 65mm with a digital distribution platform: Netflix. It should be encouraged to view Roma in a cinema if you can, but the film is strong enough and the quality is such that it’ll still amaze you and retain its placid beauty even on your television. Cuaron’s vivid retelling of this period, his wide scope of events—in their interiority and exteriority—his tacit political commentary and his empathy toward a servant, and Aparicio’s performance, makes Roma the unmistakable triumph of this year.