Alfonso Cuaron certainly has a wide range. His filmography runs the gambit in terms of tone, style, and subject matter – from his strong adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, to his dull take on Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; from his science fiction epic Gravity to the family drama A Little Princess. However, none of his previous films quite matches his latest Roma – Cuaron’s masterwork: a culmination of the themes that Cuaron has developed throughout his career and a testament to his filmmaking prowess.
Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a maid working with an upper-class Mexican family during the 1970s. Her employer, played by Marina de Tavira, is facing an impending divorce and balances the fallout from this with her desire to protect her children from this news. As her life starts to unravel at the seams, the nation undergoes a period of political and economic turmoil – the government and public celebrate the military while many are left in dire poverty. Those familiar with Y Tu Mama Tambien, will recognize Cuaron’s use of contrasting settings to make a point about economic disparity, and his commentary on the Mexican government.
For all its politics, however, first and foremost, Roma is a social drama – one that understands the joys, sorrows, and contradictions present in Cleo’s way of life. When we meet our protagonist, she’s a part of the family – everyone clearly has a very close relationship with her, especially the younger children. For her part, she does seem to enjoy her job.
But there’s a contradiction here: Cleo’s employers may love her and value her, but ultimately she is an employee and is not equal to the other family members. Her relationship with her employers is first and foremost economic. That is not to say the family mistreats her; they pay for her medical expenses, including her on family vacations, but Cuaron doesn’t let us forget this contradiction, and so although her relationship with the family is close, there is a certain distance.
Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is very understated. More often she is the observer and audience surrogate than an active participant, because of this, Aparicio relays a lot of information non verbally, a remarkably nuanced approach from the first time actress. With very limited tools she’s able to convey how her character feels with just a look or subtle shift in body language. Such a performance often gets dismissed as bland or unmemorable – but there’s quite a lot going on with the character and it takes a lot of talent to pull off the kind of performance that Yalitza Aparicio does. She’s a surprising standout.
She is matched, if not exceeded, by Marina de Tavira, who plays her employer, Sofia. Unlike Aparicio, Tavira has a more active presence on screen, one that presents its own challenges. Tavira is burdened by significant emotional distress that causes her actions to venture into the mean spirited territory but she never becomes the antagonist. Instead, Tavira allows the audience to feel sympathetic towards her plight even at her worst moments.
Roma is more like Cleo than Sofia however – understated, with moments of real passion. This carries straight down to the visual look. Cuaron serves as both director and cinematographer crafting a contemporary black and white film, that is very pristine and modern ranking among his very best from a visual perspective. Utilizing plenty of long takes and a largely stationary camera; every choice feels calculated and deliberate towards a minimalistic aesthetic. The camera doesn’t want you to notice it, it wants you to keep your focus on the drama that’s unfolding and what’s taking place on screen.
A stand out scene occurs about halfway through the movie (if you want to go into the movie as blind as possible, you should probably skip to the next paragraph): a New Years’ Eve Party is interrupted by a forest fire, and in background of the shot, which lasts about a minute and 30 seconds, we see a large group of people trying put out the fire, mixed in with confused onlookers who seem to be trying to organize everyone. They are the focus of the shot for the first 30 seconds or so, until a man comes on screen, dressed in a costume from the party, takes off his mask, and begins to sing – to commemorate the new year. Thematically, it’s a beautiful moment. But, cinematically, it’s a real achievement – here we have a wonderfully complicated shot painstakingly put together for maximum visual impact.
All of this is in service of the most thematically rich story Cuaron has ever told. Roma has a lot to say: about Mexican society, about government, about poverty, about family, and about how women are treated within these structures. These messages could be deceptively simple in isolation: the Mexican government at this time was repressive, women aren’t treated well, society ignores poverty within indigenous populations. Where it becomes particularly unique is how these messages interlap.
For Cuaron, nothing exists in isolation with one another: Mexico’s celebration of the military is directly tied to the government’s failure to act on behalf of indigenous people; the misogynistic nature of Mexican society is compounded by the protagonists status as an indigenous person; indigenous poverty at the hands of an absent government has correlations with Sofia’s newfound financial misfortunate at the hands at an absent husband. Cuaron isn’t just making a statement with Roma: he is presenting a developed thesis on the Mexico of his childhood, the good and the bad.
Even more fascinating, this is an argument he’s been developing for some time. Y Tu Mama Tambien discusses government’s inability to solve social ills, Children of Men tackles the police state and the glorification of military power, Love in the Time of Hysteria (kind of) deals with issues that come with men abusing their power in relationships. While these topics may have been covered before, Cuaron’s filmmaking and writing talent have only improved since the beginning of his career. Here, we see him at the top of his form, and it makes these themes even more poignant. Roma demonstrates an evolution in technique, ideology, and the argumentative ability for Cuaron; a path he seems to have been building to with each addition to his filmography.
You don’t need to love Alfonso Cuaron’s other films, however, to be invested in what Roma is doing. This is a very unique kind of movie, something that doesn’t come out all the often. It’s difficult to make a film as overtly political as this without it coming across and preachy and fake – a lot of movies, including some that I agree with, have fallen into this trap, Roma certainly does not. It’s carefully crafted, it’s exceptionally well made, a crowning achievement on the already illustrious resume of Alfonso Cuaron.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is the perfect culmination of themes that he has spent his entire career developing, and a masterpiece of writing and filmmaking.