Opening Friday, Dec. 14
Though it’s shot in luminous black-and-white, Roma is one of the year’s most visually vibrant films. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical remembrance of his childhood in early-1970s Mexico is a Proustian paean with verisimilitude oozing from every earnest detail. The bustle and brio of Mexico City, with its street vendors, neon nightlife, and opulent movie houses, is prominent, but Roma is also a personal reflection in which a director attempts to unravel familial and cultural complexities he was once too young to grasp.
The film opens with a maid washing dog feces off the courtyard of a middle-class home in Mexico City’s affluent Roma district. Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) is an indigenous Mixtec nanny who lives with a Mexican couple of European descent, their four children, and, yes, their rambunctious Alsatian. The family rejoices whenever paterfamilias Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, comes home and wedges his Ford Galaxy into a makeshift garage. But while his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), tells the kids that his long sojourns are research trips to Quebec, their marriage is falling apart, and he’s actually living with other women in the area.
Cleo’s relationship with the family is complex. Her devotion, especially to the children, is genuine. Her quality of life is better than it was in the poverty-stricken slums of Oaxaca. But the reticent Cleo is always aware of her station in an unofficial caste system. Cuarón captures this in ways both broad—Sofia repeatedly screams at Cleo for not cleaning up that dog shit—and subtle. When Cleo answers the telephone, she reflexively wipes the receiver before handing it to her employer. When the family must check Cleo into the hospital, they don’t know her middle name or birthdate.
As Cleo’s surrogate family gradually disintegrates, her unease is compounded when she becomes pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a daft inamorato who turns more sinister after he abandons her and later refuses to acknowledge his paternity. Fermin turns out to be a government foot soldier in the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971, one of several marquee vignettes in Cuarón’s kaleidoscope.
They also include a yuletide visit to an opulent bourgeois hacienda, a martial-arts training ground established for nefarious purposes, and a beach trip during which Cleo’s taciturn manner finally gives way to emotional release. This sequence is where Roma coalesces into a narrative about gender inequities and repression that often transcend race and class—“No matter what they tell you, women, we are alone,” a drunken Sofia confesses to Cleo.
Cuarón also spotlights trips to Mexico City’s grand movie houses. In one outing, the kids watch John Sturges’s 1969 sci-fi film, Marooned, including a clip of two astronauts, a sort of foreshadowing after the fact of Cuarón’s 2013 movie, Gravity. But while the big screen inspired a young Cuarón, many viewers won’t get the opportunity to see the visually robust Roma in the cinema. Netflix is distributing the film, which receives a limited theatrical release in more than one hundred U.S. theaters (that’s not many) on December 14, the same day it drops on the streaming platform. Luckily, one of those theaters is Raleigh’s Alamo Drafthouse.