Written & Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Cleo is a maid in 1970s Mexico City, working at a home in the Colonia Roma neighborhood for a doctor and his family. The patriarch of the family leaves for a work trip to Quebec which is quickly revealed to be an excuse to leave his family. Cleo works to serve the family while living a private life beyond their gaze. She finds out she is pregnant after a series of dates with her new boyfriend, Fermin. He shows little interest in staying to gather her child and Cleo is left to reveal her condition to her employer. In the background, cultural and political strife in Mexico are unfolding, and from time to time these conflicts cross over into Cleo and her employers’ lives. Otherwise, Roma unfolds as an unassuming slice of life picture.
Roma operates on many different levels which is to be expected from the work of Alfonso Cuaron. I will not be surprised in the least if viewers come away feeling emotionally distanced from a lot of the proceedings. Cuaron frames his actors mostly in wide shots, often as tracking shots. The frame gets filled with so much detail that characters can become lost in the scene. I recall a moment where we find Cleo and Fermin making out in a movie theater. The static wide shot is additionally inhibited by the darkness of the room, and the couple I first thought was Cleo, and her boyfriend are not. They are slightly off center and shrouded and even more darkness, only made apparent with the screen in the background is mostly white. There is so much for your eye to take in that the figures get lost. I believe Cuaron is attempting to create a visual metaphor for the place of Cleo in the predominately white middle-class environment she lives and works in.
Close up, and medium shots appear to be reserved for specific moments. The delivery scene is shot in medium with three layers of action: foreground, middle, and background. Cleo is placed in the foreground, and the middle space creates a distance between her and the emotionally rending actions in the background. When Cleo travels to a country estate for the holidays with her employers, she ends up at a cantina with a local, both of them and the patrons all from native populations. The camera is much tighter in this scene reflecting the intimacy of these people sharing in festivities. If you ever felt you lacked an emotional connection remember how genuinely talented Cuaron is with the camera and that every single shot has deep intention put into it.
Cuaron deftly weaves in moments of profound humor and horror. There is a training scene involving a television personality making an appearance and showing off a pose he claims only the most trained of individuals can pull off — the soldiers training attempt to ape him and even the onlookers that had been watching the soldiers try their hand at the feat. They all do so with their eyes closed missing the fact that Cleo is the only one to pull it off correctly. Later, Cleo is shopping with the grandmother of her work family when the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre occurs. This event involved student protests turning bloody when the plainclothes military opened fire on the youths. Cleo witnesses a student dash into the store to hide only to be followed and gunned down in cold blood. There is never any exposition or further commentary to contextualize the moment, but this act of death is juxtaposed poetically with the next few events.
Roma is a film you will ruminate on, and some shots will inevitably remain in your mind for a long time after. The more I have thought about the technical aspect and storytelling structures at play the more I like the movie, and I begin to realize that my seemingly initial emotional detachment was an intentional construct by the filmmaker. Roma is something special that doesn’t reveal itself within its runtime and will require thought and revisitation.