Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which opens with the deceptively effortless image of soapy water splashing across on a tile floor, builds like a symphony. The melody is a relatively simple one, following a domestic worker named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the family that employs her as they deal with the fallout of abandonment and pregnancy. The world isn’t ending, nor are there villains in the Hollywood sense of the word. Yet the stakes feel just as high, likely because the film draws from childhood memories.
Cuarón dedicates his film, which debuted on Netflix in December and just won Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director at the 2019 Oscars, to Liboria Rodríguez, who worked for his family for several decades. However, the director isn’t granting himself absolution for Rodríguez’s all-but-invisible labor, or the class-based inequality inherent in their circumstances. Instead, Roma grapples with their shared existence, as Cuarón draws each distinct note into a stunning, cohesive piece.
In the Colonia Roma neighborhood of 1970s Mexico City, Cleo tends to the house, children, and adults in the home for which she serves as a live-in maid. The beginning of the film is devoted to the mundane, setting up Cleo’s work routine so that when life later fractures, the effect is felt as deeply as possible. There’s an order to her world, both literally (the family patriarch’s Ford Galaxie barely fits into the hallway allocated for it; the family dog’s poop constantly has to be picked up; there’s always laundry to do and dishes to be cleaned) and metaphorically (Cleo is told not to speak in her indigenous Mixtec language, while the frustrations the adults cause each other is transferred onto her, as is the responsibility for the children’s behavior and happiness).
The subtle oppression built into Cleo’s job lends weight to Roma’s low-key drama. Cleaning the house is a duty that’s clearly delineated, but the invisible, emotional labor that Cleo must perform for the family is not. It’s beyond a shadow of a doubt that she cares for them, but that doesn’t make that work any less of a burden.
As the film progresses, events rupture the domestic mold — the film’s timeline spans the Corpus Christi Massacre, for instance — but never veer into melodrama. Rather, the increased tension magnifies the emotions of the characters experiencing them in a slow crescendo. It’s so subtly done that it’s tempting to describe Roma’s emotional climax as a sucker punch; it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s just that the scene crashes down in waves that feel so much grander than the film’s beginning.
As is usual with Cuarón, there is an exact, beautiful precision to the way each shot is constructed. Shot in black and white, and set against a near-exact reconstruction of the home Cuarón grew up in, the film’s conveyance of scale and familiarity with the space (and time, and people) lends itself to intimacy and the same emotional hook as the slow burn pace. Though the camera moves freely, Cuarón is often just as content to let it remain static or move at a near-imperceptible crawl, staging scenes that feel not unlike plays or paintings. Adding to the immersive effect is the way Cuarón deploys sound, using it to surround his audience and further build a sense of space.
At the heart of it all is Cleo. Aparicio, in her acting debut, is remarkable, remaining an unflinching core as Cuarón unravels his childhood memories, and the class and colonialist issues baked into them. The lack of a clear resolution — this is but a fraction of these characters’ lives — doesn’t lessen the film’s impact, particularly as Cuarón alternates between capturing Cleo’s point of view of the working world, and observing her life from the outside, and in dreamy retrospect.
Even in scenes where Cleo is not the ostensible focus, Aparicio draws the eye; microscopic changes in her expression and posture speak volumes. Early on in the film, the mother and father (Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga) share a tense exchange. Behind them, Cleo holds onto one of the children. It’s not anxiety or uncertainty that’s conveyed in the slant of her shoulders and her muted expression, but the acknowledgment of how these emotional waves of the moment will affect her, too. The focus shifts, in that moment, from the surface action and drama, to the deeper emotional story underneath.
The sheer number of Netflix films is so overwhelming that the platform’s prestige pictures often end up at the bottom of the pile. Last year, Dee Rees’ Mudbound earned nominations in four Oscar categories, but failed to break into the Best Picture or Best Director race, and generally seemed to go underseen and under-discussed. That Roma has broken that particular mold — picking up 10 Oscar nominations, winning three, and becoming the center of a storm of discussion as to how movies ought to be seen — speaks to its sheer power.
Roma ebbs and flows, its quiet, episodic moments connected by near-epic images and themes, until the distinction becomes impossible (and unnecessary) to make. It’s a symphony — a cohesive piece, without a single note out of place.
Roma is streaming on Netflix now.