Distributed By: Netflix
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
After watching a number of award shows this year, I noticed one film kept popping up – a foreign film called Roma. The movie was described as a semi-autobiographical film about writer and director Alfonso Cuarón’s upbringing in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. It had been a while since I watched a foreign film. I decided to find out what all the buzz was about.
The story is told through the eyes of Cleodegaria “Cleo” Guitêrrez (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous live-in maid for a middle-class family in Colonia Roma. The family consists of a doctor named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his biochemist wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Sofia’s mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia), their four young children Toňo (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Sofi (Daniela Demesa) and Pepe (Marco Graf) and their dog Borras. Cleo is assisted in her duties by another indigenous maid named Adela (Nancy Garcia). The children adore Cleo and the feeling is mutual.
As Cleo cleans and cooks for the family, she begins to notice strain between Antonio and Sofia. Antonio’s conference in Quebec seems to be a point of contention between the two and when he finally leaves for the conference, Sofia is beside herself. Meanwhile, on her off time, Cleo is falling in love with Adela’s boyfriend’s cousin Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). A very serious individual, Fermín grew up in the slums of Mexico City and credits martial arts with saving him from certain disaster. The two become sexually involved and Cleo soon realizes she is pregnant. Unfortunately, as soon as she tells Fermín, he disappears.
Realizing she will have to endure the pregnancy alone, she goes to Sofia, expecting that she will be fired. Much to her surprise, Sofia offers her assistance, taking her to the hospital to get checked out. Of course, there is an ulterior motive – Sofia also wants to check in on her husband who has not returned from his conference and is most likely with another woman. With the coming of Christmas and New Year's, Sofia decides to spend the time with a family friend at their hacienda. The landowners and workers discuss tensions over the land in the area and, during the celebration, a fire erupts in the forest. Even Cleo and the children are enlisted in helping to stop the spread of and eventually extinguish the fire.
As Cleo takes in all that is going on around her, she begins to wonder just how she is going to take care of a baby alone. In her off time, she looks for Fermín, but he doesn’t exactly want to be found. At home, the matriarch of the family she is taking care of is at times falling apart and at other times searching for a way to survive as she realizes her husband will not be returning. Add to that the unrest in the city and it all threatens to be too much for the kindhearted young woman…how will she survive against such odds?
There are some people who are not into watching foreign films simply because of the subtitles and, I must admit, if I didn’t already know some Spanish, I would have missed out on some things in Roma as the subtitles moved fairly quickly. Spanish helped me not at all with the Mixtec language spoken by Cleo to Adela when they are alone. Luckily, I read fast. But I have to say, those who refuse to watch foreign films because of the subtitles are really missing out. I’ve watched a number of great films that contained subtitles and I would count Roma as one of them.
I loved the cinematography in this film. The fact that it is shot in black and white give you that feeling that you are looking back in time. It also makes you focus on the story, with no bright colors to distract you from the emotions and drama of what is happening in each scene. Another thing I loved about this film was the foreshadowing. It begins with the opening scene. You hear the sounds of the street as the credits play and you observe water flowing over what appear to be clean cobblestones. Soap suds can be seen now and again and, as the water begins to pool, you begin to see the area above the courtyard in the water's reflection with planes flying overhead. But then, toward the end, you notice that the water becomes dingy and then downright mucky. There was a clean beauty in the beginning, but then dirt and grime muck things up at the end. This is perhaps a metaphor for the things to come…how beautiful life seems on the surface at this home in Roma, but things are not always as they appear on the surface.
There is more foreshadowing throughout the film. The fire in the forest after the family is having so much fun speaks to the unrest in the country about to erupt between the haves and have nots. The earthquake that shakes the hospital as Cleo looks at the babies in the neonatal unit. The scene in which Cleo and the servants toast the baby…well, I’m not going to give that away, but it is telling. The moment when a very pregnant Cleo is standing in the outdoor martial arts practice field and is the only person out of the class attendees and spectators who can perform the same pose as the blindfolded master speaks to Cleo’s strength of mind and body that will show itself in days to come.
There are some great comedic moments in Roma. Borras the dog provides many of them, but the youngest son, Pepe, provides them as well with his wise beyond his years attitude and his discussions of his past lives. There is also some incredible drama to be found in scenes like the forest fire, the riot that takes place as Teresa takes Cleo to purchase a crib for the baby, the subsequent hospital scene in which real doctors were used to add to the realism of the scene, the beach scene in which Cleo finds her way back to the surface and more.
Many will come away from watching this film with a great deal of opinions. Some will say it is a commentary on the life of the servant and the family for who she works. How the servant can be mistreated or often ignored despite all that the servant does to help raise the family. Some will point to the social unrest that somewhat parallels what takes place throughout the film. In Roma, I see a commentary on the strength and resolve of women. Cleo finds a way to deal with her situation. Pregnant, she still works for Sofia and her family, searches for her baby’s father and manages to stay afloat even while all else is crashing around her (another bit of foreshadowing found in the beach scene). Meanwhile, Sofia tries to find strength even as Antonio strings her along while he plays with his mistress. Though she does allow herself the luxury of falling apart for a time, Sofia picks herself up and finds the courage to move forward for herself and for her family. And in the end, the two women discover that they are not alone; that together, they can face anything the world throws at them.
I loved the way Alfonso Cuarón made us fall in love with the characters he created for this film based on a woman who took care of his own family as a child. I loved Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo, all the more special because Yalitza never experienced formal training in acting and yet she made us feel everything Cleo felt through her body movements, vocal tones and facial expressions. Marina de Tavira is an excellent actress who brings Sofia to life in a way that you gradually begin to care about her as you gain insight into her life. Jorge Antonio Guerrero is simply spooky as the intense and downright hateful Fermín.I can continue to gush on and on about Roma, but you won’t understand until you see the movie. So, what are you waiting for? Don’t let a few subtitles scare you! Check out Roma today!