Alfonso Cuaron’s last film was quite literally out of this world yet his latest effort brings him back to Earth but with a story no less epic and profound. Roma is partly based on the director’s life but is told through the eyes of the nanny/maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), whose experiences reveal the extent of classism and racism in 1970s Mexico.
It’s been almost 18 years since Cuaron made a film in his native language but he felt the time was right to return to his mother tongue and craft a revealing tale of class and racial struggle. The film is told through Cleo’s (based on Cuaron's real maid, Lido) eyes and this unique way of telling the story gives the film a special insight into social issues in Mexico. Nanny/maid characters in films are usually bit parts in films, seen frequently but heard speaking only fleetingly. Cleo is always on hand to tend to the families every need, yet she is always on the outside. She is loved but never fully treated as part of family as she is ordered to do things only a servant would (it is always very uncomfortable when this happens).
This is evident simply in how her treatment in plain for all to see. Cleo (and her co-worker) stays in a separate part of the house that’s vastly different to the luxurious brightly lit interiors of the main house. Whether the entire family are together, she’s always on the side whether its kneeling on the floor whilst the family watch tv or standing, nearly out of frame, as the others sit on bench eating an ice cream. That’s not to say the family are uncaring or dismissive of her, the kids revere her greatly but her race and class separates her from truly belonging in the household.
As we see the world through Cleo’s eyes all these things become glaringly obvious even if the camera simply observes (like a ghost from the past as Cuaron said) life happening before it. As we see the world through Cleo’s eyes we see her heartbreak, her pain and suffering in her most testing times (the most traumatic being the scene shortly following The Corpus Christi Massacre). Not only that we get a vital look at prejudice from someone who at the centre of it. Spending so much time with her, it’s easy to notice the subtlest of prejudices. Oaxaca born Yalitza Aparicio restrained and moving performance is one of heart-breaking quiet poignancy as she provides a voice for the disenfranchised.
Working on his first feature film since Prisoner of Azkaban without his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (if you can’t get Lubezki you may as well do it yourself), Cuaron forgoes the long handheld take technique of Children of Men and the exciting fluidity of Gravity and instead adopts a slow panning technique that resembles a casual observer. Much like Tokyo Story, Cuaron’s camera simply observes the family unit, taking a non-judgemental and objective view of upper middle class of Mexico thereby allowing the viewer to notice the subtle elements of racism without ever explicitly mentioning them.
That said, Roma is not without its visual flourishes. The beautiful black and white cinematography transport us to the hustle and bustle of Roma region of Mexico City. The long, tracking shots reveal so much about the film’s setting, taking us into the world inhabited by Cleo. The sound design allows us to experience the world in which the film is set. The chaos of Mexico City, the honking of horns and roar of plane engines above (hinting at an unreachable faraway world) makes the city feel alive and more than just a distant memory.
The most important aspect of the film is that it gives a voice to the voiceless and oppressed. It was only when Cuaron began to ask Lido (the maid on which the story is based) about her life that he began to recognise her as a real person with a life outside the home. These talks were perhaps as revealing and eye opening to Cuaron as the film Roma is to us. Understated and moving, Roma is a slow-moving film where, for a while, seemingly nothing happens but it’s one that rewards a patient viewer with a highly emotional experience.