Don’t go to Roma expecting an action movie. The story builds slowly, its effects a gradual process of accumulated details. Events that might be huge crescendos in a more traditional narrative—birth, death, violence, heroism, heartbreak—roll in and out of this movie with the same steady rhythm as the wash water that ebbs and flows across a tiled hallway floor in the film’s lengthy opening shot. Victories are small. Tragedies are muted. Life goes on.
It’s another intriguing departure in tone and style for Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, a chameleon of a storyteller well-known for the diversity of his films. After the raucous Y Tu Mamá También, he went on to direct one of the best Harry Potter movies (The Prisoner of Azkaban), the sci-fi thriller Children of Men, and the nifty Hollywood space epic Gravity.
But in Roma, Cuarón returns from space, fantasy and the future to explore his own roots in the suburban district of Mexico City where he grew up. Shot in pristine, almost sculptural black-and-white, and beautifully composed in terms of both visuals and sound, it’s a cinematic dose of deep yoga breathing, slowing down the heart rate while inviting us to observe and appreciate the small details that make up a life.
The woman wielding the water bucket in that opening shot is our heroine, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid in an upscale household who is also de facto nanny to her employers’ young children. Cleo is unassuming and efficient at her job; she’s always pleasant and polite to her employers, and the kids adore her.
The household includes Señor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a harried professional, his chic wife, Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her mother, and the couples’ four children, along with a second housemaid. But the comfortable in-home dynamic starts to change when the father runs off with his mistress.
Other events occur, but this movie isn’t about plot; it prefers to reveal complex relationships in telling little epiphanies. It’s almost shockingly subservient when Cleo kneels at the end of the sofa where the family is gathered to watch TV, until we see the affection with which one of the kids instantly drapes his arm around her. Both Sofia and her husband are prone to snap at the maid when aggravated by something else (say, the dog, or the kids), but when Cleo needs help, Sofia supports her unflinchingly. And yet, Sofia’s flustered mother doesn’t know enough details about the longtime family servant to fill out a form when Cleo is admitted to the hospital.
Meanwhile, Cuarón’s curious camera eye feasts on everything: the graphic pattern of the iron staircase railing inside the family home; the corrugated tin walls of a shanty house; the geometric shape of a skylight dancing on a sheen of moving water. When Cleo is scrubbing laundry in a cement tub on the roof, joking with one of the kids, the camera pans backward to reveal a pattern of wash-scrubbing housemaids on the roofs of adjoining houses.
Sound, too, almost becomes a character in the movie. Cleo quietly sings along with the radio on her daily rounds around the house. But outside, when she’s searching for an address in an unfamiliar neighborhood, the clamor of noise—vendor cart bells, barking dogs, shrieking children, shouted conversations, prowling cars, the brass horns of a distant band—grows to a sinister cacophony, like a physical threat. When she wades into the water after the kids at the beach, we feel each propulsive, bone-shaking pound of the surf.
Roma builds to a celebration of simple virtues that are so undervalued in the current socio-political climate—affection, compassion and co-operation, the dignity of work, and the right of all individuals (including women and people of color) to try to build a stable, decent life. And Cuarón observes these values in practice, with artistry and perception.
With Yalitza Aparicio and Maria de Tavira. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. A Netflix release. Rated R. 135 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.