The opening sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical Roma is oddly soothing, evoking a response similar to YouTube’s popular ASMR videos, where the focus is a soft sound intended to send you into a state of bliss. In Cuarón’s simple black-and-white frame, we see a marble tile being coated, again and again, by a wash of soapy water. In it, we glimpse the reflection of an airplane flying above. But the sounds: The gentle whoosh of the water as it hits the marble, the slow hum of that far-off plane, the swish-swish of wet bristles. Maybe it’s your troubles being scrubbed away. Maybe this all evokes some distant memory. It’s soft, alluring and enchanting, an invitation to be a voyeur in this intimate portrait of life … and that’s just the first minutes.
Cuarón’s most personal film to date is being (rightfully) hailed as a masterpiece. It’s a portrait of the soul of a culture carried, birthed, nursed and loved by women, and it is perfection. The writer-director shot Roma in chronological order, without showing the cast the script, unveiling it to the actors the same way it is for the audience, piece by piece, a chance to marinate in each moment as it plays out. The story is that of a privileged family in the early 1970s, living in Roma, a borough just west of Ciudad Mexico. Its heart is the family’s caretaker, Cleo (the transcendent Yalitza Aparicio, in her first acting role). Very quickly it becomes clear that Cleo is more than just a maid or nanny to the family; she’s the quiet force that keeps the household running, no matter what may be going on outside the home or in her own life.
Cleo is the surrogate mother to the children she cares for, the soul sister and friend to matron of the home Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and also the employee who shares a tiny room above the garage with her own best friend, the household’s cook, Adela (Nancy García). Cleo and Adela giggle and gossip in Mixtec, their indigenous language, over her boss’ sometimes nitpicky requests, an odd dynamic but not unheard of in countries with large economic disparities. In Mexico, much of the population, particularly the indigenous communities, lives in poverty. The privileged class employs muchachas, who for a small wage and living quarters become as essential to their lives as air but teeter on the edge of involuntary servitude, as they are never really off the clock. They often exist in a space where they are viewed as the family’s, but they innately know that the family is not theirs.
Cuarón has called the film, which spans one year in a changing country and evolving family, an homage to the women who raised him. As Cleo faces a surprise pregnancy, and both she and Sofia find themselves deserted by the men in their lives, Cuarón crafts a vision of Mexican womanhood in that era while also peppering in contrasting reflections between poverty and privilege. Cleo represents Libo, the Cuarón family’s real muchacha, who remains a part of the director's life today. Through her eyes, he shows us the struggles of Mexico in that era, including, in a simultaneously emotional and anxiety-inducing sequence, the student protest of 1968 (better known as the Tlatelolco massacre). Roma also honors Mexico in all its grace, ranging from city to countryside to sea, finding beauty in people of every class that call the country home. And through Cleo’s joy and pain, the film explores the delicate nature of a woman’s autonomy over her feelings, and how she changes through love and loss.
Mexican culture, as is the case with most Latino cultures, is born in machismo. A woman is taught to create a home, to rear children, to please and to serve everyone but herself. Even in privileged classes, a woman tends not to be viewed as equal to her spouse. She must be everything to everyone at all times, the roles of caretaker, socialite and martyr all in a delicate balancing act that can come crashing down in an instant. When Sofia is deserted by her husband, she drunkenly tells Cleo, “Las mujeres estamos solas”… that women are alone. The irony of Sofia saying this to a muchacha is one of the many moments that fully acknowledge the complicated nature of the women's relationship while exposing a striking truth, one reflected in Cuarón’s early memory of his father’s abandonment of his family. But the film is not didactic. That insight is not dwelled on; it’s just another part of life that must be accepted and moved past.
Cuarón finds equal value in the mundane and the extraordinary, focusing as much on the way Cleo ends the day by going room to room, turning off every light at Sofia’s request, as he does on the chaos unfolding when Cleo is about to give birth. Roma reminds us that life isn’t lived just in its climaxes. Instead, it’s made up of the smallest of moments and gestures, and all the cracks in between. Serving as his own cinematographer, Cuarón manifests life and humanity in its purest forms in gorgeously intricate, effusive frames. Though the entire film is shot in 65mm black-and-white, a warmth permeates each shade of gray. Yes, this is a Netflix release, a welcome development for audiences who will rewatch this on streaming like they’re eating candy. But Cuarón has composed some of the most stunning shots and sequences in film history, and it would be a sin not to see this on the big screen, if possible.