In the on-screen text that opens Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, we’re told that the Spanish spoken through most of the movie is subtitled in English, but the occasional bracketed subtitles are to indicate characters speaking in the localized Mixtec dialect; observant viewers will notice, fairly quickly, that said dialect is primarily spoken by the domestic workers for the family at the movie’s center. “What are you saying?” demands the little boy in their care. “Stop talking like that!” Class differences are rarely addressed in American film, arguably to the detriment of our underclasses; in Roma, the distinctions couldn’t be clearer. It’s not just that the black-and-white photography makes the upper-class family appear, comparatively, white; it’s that their servants are literally speaking another language.
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And yet the subject of Roma, when all is said and done, is what all of these people have in common – wait, don’t close the tab, it’s not like that at all. This is not another Driving Miss Daisy-ish story of good people in power lifting up the poor people who work for them; Cuarón is too smart for that. First and foremost, though the film is inspired by his childhood and the nanny who raised him, that’s not the perspective he adopts for the picture. The central character, unmistakably, is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s nanny/housekeeper, and her struggles and tragedies are placed directly in its foreground.
She’s a clearly drawn and complicated character with a life outside of that home, one that (to her regret) eventually encroaches upon it. On a double date, she meets a seemingly nice boy; they have sex, and afterwards he demonstrates his martial arts skills while still nude, and she’s such a good person, she stifles a giggle. But she gets pregnant, and shares the news with him in a stunning deep-focus image of the young lovers in the back of a movie theater; the film plays in the background as he steps out to the bathroom, and never returns. The effect, as she sits all alone in the middle of this giant frame (with another frame inside it), is wrecking.
“No matter what they tell you, women, we are all alone,” says her employer, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who is dealing with an absent father of her own, barely containing her panic as she makes up excuses for her children about her father’s expanding “work trip,” imploring them to write him letters (“Tell him that you love him and to please come home soon”), pleading with his colleagues to pass on messages. Cuarón finds a useful visual metaphor for their conflict: the family car is a giant Galaxy that barely, barely fits into their medium-sized garage, requiring a series of complicated, microscopic maneuvers, first executed (with ease) in several screen-filling close-ups before we’ve even seen the father’s face; the car amounts to his fanfare. When he leaves, he leaves the car behind, and Cuarón builds Hitchcockian tension into his wife scraping up the oversized car and banging up the garage before finally selling the stupid thing, ridding herself of a cumbersome inconvenience and putting on her bravest face. “It’ll be an adventure!” she assures her family. They’re not so sure.
And this is where the plot descriptions must cease, because Cuarón is such a free-wheeling storyteller, the kind of screenwriter who likes to let the audience think they’re ahead of him before he goes off in another direction entirely. But this much can be said: after an opening half that meanders, pleasantly but sometimes aimlessly (or so it seems), he pulls the entire story, and every character inside it, into sharp focus with a pair of scenes that are stunningly heartrending. One is a tragedy, captured in a broken, unmoving frame, refusing to blink or look away, because those inside it cannot; the other is a countermeasure, overwhelming in both terror and relief.
In those scenes – and throughout the film, and throughout all of his films – one marvels not just at the patience of his storytelling or the mastery of his technique, though both are undeniable (his signature long takes have been so consumed by his overall style that they no longer call attention to themselves, and are felt more than seen). What’s become abundantly clear, over the course of this extraordinary run of searing films, is the degree to which he roots dramatic power in empathy and humanity. His films present us with complicated, imperfect people who find themselves in situations that demand their very best selves – and they rise to the occasion. What could be more inspiring than that?
“Roma” is out today in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico. It will expand to additional markets over subsequent weeks before it debuts on Netflix December 14.