The lives of a family and its domestic employee will suffer upheaval during the political turmoil of Mexico in 1970.
With a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, Roma, a Netflix production, is a quiet, slow meditation on life changes, the meaning of family and the ties that bind us, that is written, directed, partly edited and partly produced by Alfonso Cuarón—of Gravity and Children of Men fame—, who also directed the film’s photography. Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio (domestic maid Cleo Gutiérrez), Marina de Tavira (Señora Sofía), Nancy García (domestic maid Adela), and Verónica García (Señora Teresa, Sofía’s mother in law).
The most immediate striking element of Roma is the plot—that moves of its own accord: slow but not necessarily boring, an image of idyllic domestic life and duty that shatters under inside and outside pressure. Together with the sound mixture and its black and white photography—stark in its contrast and its brilliance—give the movie a vintage feel. Add to those elements the (almost) lack of precise dating and the movie “feels” timeless.
Roma is composed of two stories that eventually entwine, but for most of the movie run parallel together. One of the threads focuses on Cleo, a domestic employee in Doña Sofía and Don Antonio’s household in Mexico City, circa 1970 (the date is only mentioned once in the whole movie). Cleo has come to work in D.F., away from her indigenous family, and shares her household duties during the day with another maid, Adela. Cleo is special to the family. She is very emotionally linked to the kids, all four of them, and besides cooking, serving dinner, and washing dishes, she also helps to put them to bed with lullabies and sweet talks. Cleo’s apparent sheltered life begins to unravel when Adela starts dating Ramon, and Ramon brings his cousin Fermin along to be Cleo’s date. Casual dating becomes a sexual affair with far reaching consequences for Cleo.
The other thread is the one concerning the family Cleo works for. Don Antonio is a prominent medical doctor who invents an excuse for a trip to Quebec that is nothing but a façade to go and live with his lover in a resort town, miles away from the capital. The safety of the family is shattered when it becomes evident that Don Antonio is to leave his wife and children for his newfound love. Doña Sofía has to make peace with the idea that her children now depend on her for emotional and financial support, as does Cleo during her confusing pregnancy, amidst the political turmoil of Mexico in 1970.
The sound effects are so organically incorporated that they are more the sounds of daily life than those of a film per se: a musical band playing in the street, a radio playing a well-known song while the maid goes about her daily tasks, errand gun shots, a plane flying above, a scissors’ sharpener calling to potential customers, conversations, car horns, children playing and singing, birds twitting, dog barks, wind blowing, and the powerful sound of waves.
Roma is not a movie for everyone, but it will be appreciated by those with patience enough to overlook its slow pacing.