Gray cement tiles, flowing water, the sound of a broom being swept across a courtyard, with just these three things ROMA written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) transported me back home to Barbados, where every Sunday morning certain tasks such as scrubbing the driveways or verandah was a part of our Sunday mornings.
ROMA recently showing in the Special Presentations Programme at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, ROMA is Cuarón’s love letter to his childhood in Mexico City and the women who inhabited and influenced his life, told in Spanish, his native tongue. Known for his examination of humanity by placing his characters in stressful situations as with Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón does the same with ROMA. Told through the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman who works as the live-in housekeeper and nanny for an upper-middle-class family in the early 1970’s. When the husband leaves on a sudden business trip, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) turns to Cleo, placing more responsibility on her shoulders.
By taking a very detailed look at the life of a domestic worker like Cleo, Cuarón gives audiences an honest glimpse into the daily lives of these women as they go about their day to make things easier for their employers and young charges.
With the use of steady, flowing shots, the camera follows Cleo as she hustles from room to room, collecting clothes to wash, answering phones, and checking with the cook to make sure dinner is being prepared to Sofia’s liking. With a mother and grandmother who (for a brief time) were a maid and nurse-maid respectively, having been a housekeeper and nanny myself, I related to Cleo and appreciated Cuarón’s way of revealing this life to those who either don’t know or care to know.
Filmed completely in black and white the stark contrast of these intersecting lives are revealed and laid bare and though it may seem ironic, I found the lack color to be a fitting homage to a working-class predominately made up of women of color, not only in Mexico but all over the world. Watching the camera move from Cleo hand-washing clothes on the rooftop, to focusing on those of neighboring houses showing one woman after the next doing the same thing, is a reminder that this the day-to-day life for many in this field of work.
Once the children, Sofia, and her husband arrive home, the quiet that Cleo relies on to get through the day, is shattered and the distinction between her and them are revealed. Cleo is reminded constantly that it’s her job to literally clean the family dog’s poop, but when the accompanying dialogue is taken into consideration it becomes quite clear that this scene is a metaphor for how the family sees her. It’s her job to feed a child his dinner as his mother eats hers. Cleo is reminded that while she is with the family she is not part of the family.
Cleo’s relationship with her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) takes an unfortunate and frankly anger inducing turn when she becomes pregnant, he denies the baby is his and simply walks away. As we see Cleo coming to terms with the additional responsibility this new change will bring to her life, more of who Sofia is as an individual is revealed. We see her trying to protect the children from the truth that their father (like Fermín) has left them. Instead of remaining apathetic to Cleo, Sofia begins to see her as a person who matters.
With ROMA Cuarón has created not only a visual spectacle with wide panning shots of suburban Mexico, the countryside and coast, he also manages to intertwine the lives of these two women with the politics of the time. Sofia learns to come to accept that she can no longer rely on her husband for emotional or financial support so rejoins the workforce, after giving up a career in science. As her time for delivery growing closer, the tension of potential civil unrest lay simmering below the surface, and in a beautiful but devastating juxtaposition, Cleo unexpectedly goes into labor, just as fighting breaks out in the streets during the Corpus Christie Massacre.
Apart from the visuals, the sound design of ROMA places the audiences into the scenes, by giving the feeling of being present in the various settings of the film. From the open layout of the family home with its high ceilings to a delivery ward filled with the cries of mothers in pain and babies taking their first breaths the viewer feels as though they’re present with the characters. But despite all of the technical mastery displayed one thing, or I should say one person stood out, and that was Yalitza Aparicio.
In her first feature film debut, Aparicio gave a performance that though quiet in execution, was powerful. She holds your attention every time she’s on screen, which is practically every scene in the film. Though the character of Cleo wasn’t prone to loud outbursts of emotions, you felt the anger she held in tight control. When she isn’t able to cry because the pace of certain situations is moving too quickly, you cry for her because you feel the heartbreak with her.
In the end, ROMA is a film that encourages us to look closely at the people we work and live with. For no matter what language we speak or where we’re from, we all have much more in common than we realize…and men are really trash sometimes.
ROMA won the Golden Lion award at the 75th Venice International Film Festival and was second runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Awards at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.