When I went to see “Roma” on its very first screening in Chicago, I was positively surprised to see a full theater. That doesn’t happen with every limited-release, black and white, foreign language film. Furthermore, I noticed many audience members, me included, were Mexicans who invited non-Mexicans to watch it with them. Before it started, I could hear their Mexican accents in English as they talked to their fellow moviegoers about the film’s praise or the sociopolitical context it is set in. There was a sense of excitement in them. Or more accurately, in us. We were eager to see ourselves on the screen.
And see ourselves we did. Alfonso Cuarón’s black and white passion project won two Golden Globes on January 6 (Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language; and Best Director, Motion Picture). It is also a serious Oscar contender. But beyond that, “Roma,” simply put, is Mexico. Written, directed, photographed, co-edited and co-produced by Cuarón, the film naturally tells his personal story. Yet in such an intimate portrayal of life in 1970’s Mexico City, he shows us Mexico in all its grandeur, its ups and downs, and the historic moments that envelop daily life.
For one, it is Mexico in a specific time and place. Named after the historic middle class neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up, the film is a semi-biographical memoir of his childhood and the women who raised him. It shows his mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) struggling to keep her marriage afloat for her four children. But it mostly focuses on Cleo, the housemaid and nanny stunningly performed by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio. She does the dishes, sweeps the garage and makes sure to turn off all the lights at night. But she also tucks the children in to bed, dresses them, picks them up at school and constantly reminds them that she loves them.
Cleo is almost family, but not quite, and Cuarón brilliantly tackles the nuances of this relationship, all too common among middle-class Mexican families with live-in domestic workers. Sofía kindly listens to Cleo’s concerns and takes her to the doctor when she needs it. She also scolds Cleo, not necessarily for doing something wrong, but rather by matter of the maid being the closest target for her bursts of anger as she seeks stability in her life.
Before “Roma,” Aparicio had prepared to become a preschool teacher in her hometown of Tlaxiaco in the southern state of Oaxaca. Now she is walking red carpets in film festivals and giving interviews around the world along with the rest of the cast and crew. It may be the first time she’s acted, but God, can she act. She perfectly embodies the humility socially expected of her. She answers questions, especially personal ones, with silence, either with a slight nod or simply with her eyes. She remains a calm presence next to the family’s emotional rollercoaster, which makes the moment where she eventually shows her own emotional burden all the more powerful.
Yet beyond her actual performance, Aparicio play a much-needed role in Mexican cinema. Rarely are dark-skinned, indigenous people portrayed in film and television in Mexico, and when they are, they function as background characters. “Roma,” by contrast, revolves around Cleo. In several scenes, she speaks Mixtec with Adela, the family cook, making this a film that even most Mexicans (me included) need subtitles to fully understand. Few people outside their community can understand their language, but that doesn’t make their stories any less real or important.
The family’s story, of course, is set to a specific time and place. You can see it in the fashion, the hairstyles and the cars, of course, but also in a vintage can of Choco-Milk, in logos of the 1968 Olympics and 1970 World Cup, and in the electoral posters for then President Luis Echeverría. You can also see it in the political unrest and in the way it permeates daily life, whether in a conversation during lunch about a child getting shot for throwing a water balloon at a military vehicle, or a massive riot seen from the window of a furniture store.
But as much as the film is linked to its time, it also paints a living, breathing portrait of a Mexico that can still be seen today. It shows in the quiet bedtime prayers and lullabies, in its eloteros preparing corn on the cob for children after school, in the earthquakes that will briefly interrupt daily life. And it does it all in crisp 65 millimeter monochrome film, that Cuarón takes advantage of in virtually every shot. Every single frame is a lesson in lighting and composition. So much happens at any given moment, yet the background elements are not a distraction, but rather a complement to the story.
The film has been available for streaming since December 14 on Netflix, but I strongly recommend watching it in a theater if you have the chance. Unfortunately, the only one that showed it in Chicago, the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lakeview, is no longer screening it, but if the Academy nominates the film for Best Picture, it might return to the big screen. The photography looks amazing, for one, but the sound design is equally breathtaking. We can hear Mexico in its sonic depiction of a late summer afternoon: a knife sharpener’s whistle rattling the dogs, whose barks echo in the neighbors’ garages. We can hear it too in the singsong voices of its street vendors. In the political posters preaching prosperity in dirt-road slums, where sandaled women walk to the tortillería. We can also hear the screams and chaotic chatter in an overcrowded hospital in a sound mix so immersive it actually sounds like people are talking next to you.
The best part of “Roma,” however, is its pacing. It is a film that lingers. If Cleo goes up or down a flight of stairs, Cuarón (ever a fan of long takes) will show you every single step. If she’s at the movies, you’ll be with her until the lights turn on and the audience stands up and leaves. That’s probably the most authentic element of the film. Life, of course, doesn’t allow any edits.