The above photograph is what drew me to the film. A woman surrounded and embraced by children. Each touching the other. The photograph is used for promotional purposes by Netflix, the film’s distributor. It really does tell the story in a single frame.
The family is on holiday after learning from their mother that their father will not be coming home. The woman at the centre of the photograph is Cleo, a domestic worker in an upper-middle-class household in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The role of Cleo (nanny, maid, cook and housecleaner) is based on the life of an Indigenous woman, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, and is played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio from Oaxaca and herself Indigenous. You hear Cleo speaking Mixtec, one of Mexico’s Indigenous languages, with her domestic worker friend Adela played by Nancy García Garíca.
The film enchants the viewer with childhood memories from the Mexican director (editor, writer and cinematographer) Alfonso Cuarón, who now lives in London. It’s a love letter to “Libo,” now in her mid-seventies and still in touch with the director. Cuarón dedicates his film to “Libo”.
Moments before the photograph, Cleo has just rescued two children from potentially drowning. Neither Cleo nor the children can swim. In the picture you have the four children – two boys and two girls – and Sofia, the children’s mother, at the back of the image with her cascading sunlit hair. The family’s embrace of Cleo shows their love and gratitude for her, not just in this moment of rescue. Throughout their lives she has been the confidante, the storyteller, the healer, the listener, the encourager.
This is a very personal film. It’s Cuarón’s childhood, his neighbourhood, his parents, his siblings and his beloved Libo (Cleo). Cuarón wanted every touch to be right, to be accurate, and went to great lengths to make it so. The film takes place in Mexico City in 1970, shot in black-and-white, at a time of turmoil and riots while Cuarón’s family is dissolving. The father played by Fernando Grediaga abandons his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and their children. Cleo holds the family together and makes it possible for them to dream, including the young Cuarón’s dream of airplanes and space travel. An overhead airplane, off to one side of the frame, can sometimes be seen.
Roma is a quiet, meditative film. It’s about joy and pain and hardship and laughter and resilience. It’s about life. After a while, I forgot it was in Spanish. It seemed so real, the black-and-white perfect for mood and reflection. The power of the real. If you’re a writer, the question to ask is how much life can I put on the page? If you’re a director, the question is how much life can I put on the screen? In Cuarón’s case, a lot. He puts love on the screen, the love of children for a domestic worker and her love for the children.
You may know Cuarón’s work from Gravity for which he won an Oscar for Best Director, or the sci-fi film Children of Men, or the Mexican road-trip story Y Tu Mamá También. He even directed an episode of the Harry Potter story, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He’s part of the Mexican film renaissance along with amigos Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman and Revenant). Usually, he would run his film by his friends, but not this time.
“Not only did Cuarón withhold the script from his creative compadres, but he withheld it from his cast as well, giving them their scenarios daily and allowing for improvisation with the dialogue. He also shot the film in chronological order. The goal was getting at something natural, with the actors discovering their circumstances on a day-to-day basis, like life itself.”
– Kristopher Tapley, Variety Magazine
Tapley’s article, “Alfonso Cuaron on the Painful and Poetic Backstory Behind Roma,” is invaluable for its insights and interviews, worth reading in its entirety.
Tapley quotes the experienced actor Marina de Tavira (the wife and mother) who learned to improvise and respond to an event as it was happening in real time: “I would learn that Cleo was expecting a baby, for instance, [on the day we shot that scene], or that Sofía’s son was listening to her conversation on a phone. Those were surprises, and I had to just let Sofía react.”
There is a great naturalness to the film. The actors don’t seem to be acting – a mark of good acting. They reveal their stories at a natural pace, mostly the interactions between Cleo and the family, which includes a dog that Cleo cleans up after. The children fight and tease and joke around, much as children do everywhere. Other events – a stillborn birth, abandonment, riots, near-drownings, a forest fire, heartbreak over lost love—happen, but all very naturally with no one event predominant, all as part of the life-stream.
I end with two words capitalized: SEE IT. If not on a large screen, then on Netflix. It’s a great film. Beautiful. Powerful. And deeply moving.
Cheryl and I drove to Burlington (Ciné-Starz Upper Canada Place on Brant Street) to see it, being the only couple in Canada who don’t have Netflix. We normally would have had to drive to Toronto or wait for a local Festival to show it. We got lucky, and both us came away thinking we had seen something very special.
Here’s my Oscar wish: Best Picture for Roma, Best Director for Cuarón, and Libo is called to the stage to join the celebration.