We all have our own reasons for watching a film, each as valid as the next. Some of us are just looking for a pure, escapist delight, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Others want to be emotionally rocked to their core, only measuring a film’s success on how many times they cried and for how long. There are even those who watch films for the sheer intellectual value, looking to leave with new knowledge or a new understanding of the world around them. When it comes to movies, we only ever consider how it affects us personally, but sometimes a work of art is so full of the artist’s personal history that it is impossible not to be empathetic. The true show of strength of a film isn’t about what it projects on you, but what you end up projecting onto it.
Alfonso Cuarón creates Roma as a reflection of his childhood in Mexico’s capital. Cuarón is hardly the first filmmaker to develop a deeply autobiographical film, but like François Truffaut and Federico Fellini, he creates more than just a recounting of events and turns it into a transformative cinematic experience. As I said, this film is a somber reflection of Cuarón’s youth, but that is not all that is being reflected. Alongside many shots of airplanes being reflected from puddles of water on the floor, we are meant to take the film’s title as a reflection. Contrary to what you may think, this does not take place in Italy, so the title “Roma” is meant to be misleading until you’ve seen the film. Once you’ve understood the film’s purpose, you know what it is about: Love. The bookending scenes that focus on reflection give away that even the title should be held up to a mirror, which would reveal that “Roma” is actually “amor”, which is the Spanish word for love.
Much like the filmmakers, Cuarón is channeling, he shoots the film in black and white and with a focus on naturalism. Although there is a complete lack of color, the film is still completely vibrant with each frame containing a depth that conventional color could never hope to capture. Everything about this moving work of art is controlled, and the focused, singular vision that Cuarón provides is the only reason it is such a potent force. As director, writer, editor, and cinematographer, his one-man army approach could easily have been a failed offensive without a concrete objective and a resolve to match, but the result is something that felt ripped straight from his memories. This is especially impressive considering that in this film, the child that represented him is only a background character.
The story follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous domestic worker to a well-off family. Cleo may be an employee, but she treated more like a family member who is also in charge of taking care of the house and the children. This means that she spends a lot of time raising the children, becoming a second mother to them. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), who is meant to represent Cuarón’s real mother, is a secondary character in the film because the entirety of this film is a love letter to the woman who raised him. It shows the turmoil in their lives, along with a glimpse of the political/military problems in the country. The thing that Cuarón chooses to highlight the most is the strength of women, and how they are left to pick up after the messes that men make and refuse to take responsibility for. This ultimately makes them stronger people, but not without exacting a monumental toll.
As you watch the film, you’ll notice that there isn’t any music playing over the scenes. There is sometimes music playing in the background but from an atmospheric source, but never as a score. Oftentimes, a film’s score is meant to be a soft guide for the viewer to the emotional that the filmmaker wants them to feel in that particular moment. Sometimes they echo what the film is already making us feel, but very often it is a manipulative force. Cuarón cuts this all out, letting each scene speak for itself, and trust me, they speak emotional volumes.
Cuarón’s use of long takes adds to Roma’s use of a natural “score” by creating unflinching scenes that keep us in the moment, especially since they are used in the most devastating moments. When watching a film, you notice when editing cuts are made in scenes because they usually change perspectives. These editing marks subconsciously provide the viewer with the cue to blink, but when watching Roma make sure you hydrate your eyes beforehand because these cues are few and far between; not that you’d want to miss a second anyway.
This film is not lacking in any form of authenticity, but one of the greatest assets to the film is undeniably Yalitza Aparicio, who makes her acting debut as Cleo. The level of depth and dimension that Aparicio gives to her character rivals that of any seasoned actress. The cultural layers help to fully realize the character, and that includes having her speak in Mixteco, an indigenous tongue many people in the villages still speak. So even though Cuarón shows Mexicans in their daily lives, he also makes sure to distinguish between the various, diverse people that exist in the country. That is one of the many reasons that this deeply personal film is able to transcend past its time and place and become universally empathetic.