Stone tiles awash in soapy water; an airplane reflected in the flow. The long, close opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s film “Roma” (currently streaming now on Netflix) encapsulates the entire story.
His choice of crisp black-and-white imagery is both calming and confusing — we soon learn our eyes have been trained on the floor of an open-air, private garage in the Roma section of Mexico City. Yet as the water had swirled across the stone, we could have been anywhere.
“Roma” is both intensely particular and gently universal. Cleo — part-time housekeeper and nanny to an upper-middle-class family — has to corral the dog each time she opens the doors to the garage (he’s the cause of her frequent cleaning).
Those doors are the main entry from the busy, sometimes frenetic street into the family’s comfortable home, so the sequence is repeated often in the film.
In one early scene, Dr. Antonio, the father, returns home one night in his Ford Galaxy. He scrapes the car’s sides against the narrow garage walls. Rather than focus on his face, Cuarón shows the doctor’s hands as he shifts in reverse, reroutes, and slows forward again.
Classical music and cigarette smoke fill the car. Lackadaisical bordering on aloof, the doctor is greeted like a returning hero by his four children and his wife, Sofia. While in the master bedroom, he goes on about the house being dirty — a complaint that feels cruel. Cleo is a quiet, devoted worker who cares for the home and loves the family.
Washing and hanging laundry, leading the children in their nightly prayers, picking up clothes strewn across couches and chairs, scraping dishes and fixing curtains — Cleo keeps the house in order and the family in health, and her happiness takes a back seat.
She begins to date Fermín, a young man who holds his impoverished past close (in one scene, he steals a sip from her leftover drink at the café before leaving). A martial artist, he seems strong, protective, and yet his intensity feels risky in contrast to Cleo’s patient compassion.
Which makes his later striking decisions in the film not surprising. During the final minutes of a film at the cinema, Cleo reveals that she is pregnant to Fermín. In typical Cuarón fashion, we are both there and not.
The camera is behind the couple, and they are sitting near the back of the theater — space reserved for the sleepers, the kissers, and the generally distracted. Cleo’s revelation clearly surprises Fermín, who feigns joy before going to the bathroom — and never coming back.
When we see him later in the film, he is doing group calisthenics with other fighters-in-training, and has choice words for Cleo, who makes an unexpected visit.
Cuarón’s method forces us to lean a little closer to the scene, to watch Cleo’s hurt. Afterward, she’s quieter, more reserved in the family home, and shares her pregnancy with Sofia, who is loving but beset with her own problems.
Ostensibly on a research trip to Canada, her husband, Antonio, has actually run off with his mistress. She’s overwhelmed, yet more so, emotionally exhausted; she brings Cleo to the hospital to see a doctor about the pregnancy, but we hear her asking her husband’s colleagues if they’ve heard anything from him.
The risk here is that Cleo can become the good housekeeper who keeps her head down while being victimized. Cuarón avoids this by never canonizing Cleo; she’s been victimized, but she finds real spiritual joy in her relationships with the family, particularly the youngest son (early in the film she lays on the roof with him to offer consolation).
She carries a preternatural calm during the scene’s scattered scenes of violence and distress. The first takes place during the trip to the hospital. Ceilings and walls shake, and shards drop in the nursery ward. Cleo escapes unharmed.
The contrast between Cleo’s upbringing in rural Oaxaca and the bustle of Mexico City is clear, but so is the difference in her Mixtec speech. She is reserved and cautious, and is accompanied by the family’s grandmother, Teresa, to shop for cribs in the city.
What begins as a scene of hope is quickly fractured by the real-life backdrop of the Corpus Christi massacre, in which nearly 120 student protesters were killed by Mexican army soldiers.
Cuarón’s methodical method makes the scene all the more jarring. He does not fall for sentimental sways of the camera. He has no interest in melodrama. In Cuarón’s vision of Mexico, violence bleeds into civilization and ceremony.
Cleo is caught in the crossfire, and when a familiar character shows up in a frightening way, “Roma” becomes more than a movie — it is a historical document.
“Roma” is a surreal one at that — surreal in its occasional strangeness, its juxtaposition of the mundane and the slightly absurd.
In one interlude, Cleo and the family head to an uncle of Sofia’s for Christmas. Wealthy, and intermarried with American whites who prefer to only speak English, the family spends the day firing rounds into trees, and the night singing and drinking.
In perhaps the film’s most ethereal sequence, a late-night fire tears through the forest. The extended family spills into the woods.
Half are armed with pond-filled buckets that are splashed, in vain, on the fire. Others point, drinks in hand, at the smoldering trees. And one man, having dressed in a furry costume that resembles the Norwegian mythic figure of Krampus, takes off his mask and sings in front of the burn. The scene makes “Roma” feel more like a winding, mysterious opera than a film.
In one scene, after her husband has left her for another woman, Sofia nearly peels off the car’s sides along the garage walls as she pulls into her home. She stumbles out of the car, and has a warning for Cleo. Women, she says, are always alone.
“Roma” carries a melancholic, tragic tinge to its story — and the emotional result is nearly overwhelming by the end. It is absolutely a work of film as art, and Cleo is a character who tries to hold a family together while her own spirit is torn apart.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!