‘Roma’ opens slow and steady. We watch the opening credits as we begin to hear and understand that Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is scrubbing the floor of the courtyard where she works as a maid and nanny. Cleo quickly proves to be indispensable to the family she’s helping to raise. They can’t function without her. She cleans up, keeps them in order, and ensures that their days come and go as smoothly as possible. She’s a part of their soul and story even if they’re not always aware of exactly how much she’s giving to them in the process.
Cleo goes about her daily routine, cheerful and enthusiastic. She’s literally the one who cleans up the shit, yet she still manages to float through some days on clouds of pop songs and kids’ fantasies, existing in a space between here and there. She’s cheerful, focused, and optimistic, the kind of person you’d like to have around if you could pick your relatives. Cleo’s also this family’s employee and no matter how deeply into their fabric she’s woven, that thought isn’t far from anyone’s mind. Not only do socioeconomics get in the way, colonialism, racism, and classism all make their cameos as Cleo ushers her “family” through crisis and likely one of the darkest moments in their collective history. Despite all that, ‘Roma’ is Cleo’s story. It’s about how life can change in a matter of moments and how we deal with the collection of moments that we call life.
Alfonso Cuarón (Director) dishes out a painful reality for Cleo. That’s to be expected, right? Life’s tough when you’re at someone else’s beck and call. A bit of you must always be muted. Imagine living that life all day, every day. It feels oppressive just typing it out. In contrast, the visual component of this story overflows with the expansive beauty of the day-to-day. The way Cuarón takes the minutia and turns it into magnificence is breathtaking. The sweeping shots make use of every inch the screen has to offer. Cuarón also brings Mexico City front and center, creating another character for his movie. The sounds chosen to represent the city, breathe life back into a not-so-far-away time that’s just now beginning to feel out of reach, all of which add to the ethereal atmosphere in the film. ‘Roma’ feels almost like a fairy tale, the old school kind, where blood and guts are inevitable because, in addition to all that beauty, life is tragedy.
Yalitza Aparicio is understated greatness. Her eyes alone could move mountains, I’m convinced. Her portrayal of Cleo is raw and emotional, her every gesture and mannerism subtle. She’s even soft-spoken and small. All that and she’s at the center of this story that’s being told at a creeping pace. I’ll be honest, I expected to eventually lose focus. Somewhere during the first five minutes of the movie I thought, “This is overwhelmingly beautiful and everything, but at this pace my mind’s gonna wander, hard. I can taste it.” As usual, I was wrong. Instead, I wound up consumed by Cleo’s life. Yes, the movie is beautiful. Yes, the story is powerful. But I wanted to know about Cleo and who she was because of Aparicio. What she held back spoke volumes and what she artfully chose to convey cut to the core instantly. What Aparicio does with Cleo is quiet magic.
‘Roma’ is being heralded as Cuarón’s masterpiece and there really isn’t a better word for it. It’s not hyperbole, it’s reality. ‘Roma’ is a slice of life, a snippet of a time not long ago that’s become dreamy to look back upon. It’s also a semi-autobiographical story based on Caurón’s childhood in Mexico City. It appears to be an ode to the woman who essentially raised him while working in his childhood home. And, he appears to love her immensely judging by the resulting film.