There are a number of reasons why a film like “Roma” shouldn’t be a success with United States audiences. It’s a foreign film, so there are subtitles. The entire thing is shot in black and white. It takes place in 1970s Mexico. And it’s only available on Netflix.
And yet, it has been the darling of awards season, capped off with 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. As the front-runner to take home Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, it’s easy to see why “Roma” deserves all its praise.
Many of the creative choices could have spelled certain doom for this one. This the first film for the star, Yalitza Aparicio, a 23-year-old elementary school teacher. There’s no score with only songs playing on the radio. There’s seemingly no traditional plot, just a sequence of moments. And there are minimal CGI effects. A box office smash this is not.
But at the heart of “Roma” is an unexpected look at a life most people don’t think of, giving audiences an utterly raw, personal story of family and love in a way I’ve never seen before. Coming from his own experience growing up, this is Cuarón’s magnum opus.
Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Aparicio) is a live-in maid in an upper-middle-class household in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970. We see snippets of her day-to-day life of cleaning the house, caring for the children and dogs and spending the evenings in her bedroom above the garage with the family’s other maid, Adela.
All seen from Cleo’s perspective over the course of a year, we see the rising tensions between the family’s mother and father leading to separation, the growing protests and eventual riots in Mexico City and other life-changing events outside of Cleo’s control.
Not only is this Cuarón’s best film of his career so far, but it’s also his most personal. In addition to writing and co-producing “Roma,” Cuarón also co-wrote and co-edited it as well as filmed the whole thing himself.
If you told me the guy who directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men” and “Gravity” was going to make this, I wouldn’t have believed you, and yet all the best qualities of those sci-fi/fantasy masterpieces are present here.
Cuarón’s trademark technique of steady long takes is on full display throughout the movie, essentially holding the audience captive with Cleo in most situations. Sometimes it’s watching her clean the floors or picking the kids up from school. Other times it’s much more tragic scenes, but the viewer is trapped in the moment with Cleo, good or bad.
Although there are movies about the help — “The Help” comes to mind — very few are completely about the maid, instead focusing on the bigger story. But here, as we follow Cleo, the other stories enter in the middle of conversations and exit just as quickly. Normally we’d see the parents’ separation and how that affects the family, or how the growing protests impact the family’s life, but it’s all in the background while we stick with Cleo.
All the choices combined — the black and white, the long takes, filming on location, inexperienced actors — makes it feel so real, like a documentary of Cuarón’s actual life. That, in turn, makes many scenes with the family either heartbreaking or hilarious.
One scene that stuck out to me is when Cleo tells the mom, Sofia, that she thinks she’s pregnant. Just when Cleo starts to cry because she’s worried Sofia will fire her, one of the kids runs up to show them a drawing he just made. We all know these are things kids just do, even when serious life is happening. “Roma” is full of these moments that ring so true.
But in the end, this is about a family. Regardless of what happens to Cleo and her baby, Sofia and her husband or the kids and the trouble kids get into, they still have each other. And nearly 50 years after this film takes place, having each other is just as important as ever.