With the Oscars coming up, the guilt of constantly scrolling past “Roma” (2018) on Netflix en route to “Daredevil” episodes finally got to me, and I gave the Best Picture nominee a watch. And also, my Cold Bananas colleague Shaune watched the first 20 minutes, laughed, and said I can claim this one in our attempt to check Oscar films off our list.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who I admire from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men,” “Roma” is not immediately accessible. It opens with what seems like 20 minutes of water sloshing into a drain, for crying out loud. But it gradually becomes intensely watchable, sometimes with the horrific nature of a “Saving Private Ryan” (but it’s not about war, thankfully), and other times with the gentle absurdity of a “Napoleon Dynamite.”
“Roma” is all over the place, but intentionally so. It chronicles a slice of life of Mexican maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in 1970-71. Although there is a plot thread and character arc for Cleo, Cuaron softens the traditional narrative structure so we aren’t really aware of it. Like Cleo herself – who is in or adjacent to every scene – we’re caught up on the ride, which is chaotic and sometimes terrifying.
Cleo, along with one other woman who at first seems like Cleo’s sister but isn’t, is the maid for a wealthy doctor’s family in the Roma portion of Mexico City. The film shows us the mundanity of her life, which includes sweeping up dog shit from the alleyway where the doc parks a car that’s almost too large for the space. But we also see her taking in a movie with her cousin and their dates.
“Roma” illustrates here and there that Cleo is part of the family – indeed, how can she not be? She has a bigger role in raising the four kids than the mom and dad do, and it’s arguably a perfect set-up. Since she’s an employee – rather than parents that kids feel stuck with as they test their rebelliousness – a lot of the children’s open respect and love for an adult caregiver goes to her.
Conversely, we also feel Cleo’s isolation in the midst of this big family. She herself is young, and sometimes needs an adult to talk to. Matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira) sometimes treats Cleo like the help, but is generally there for her, like when she takes Cleo to the doctor. Still, the societal gap is emphasized when it’s apparent Cleo is seeing an obstetrician for the first time when she’s four months pregnant.
With a touch of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” Cleo is on the periphery, crib-shopping in a furniture store, as a students-versus-soldiers fight erupts in the city. We’re never told the exact nature of the conflict, which is appropriate, because Cleo and Sofia’s family don’t seem to be aware of it, and certainly don’t express any opinions on it.
The most fascinatingly absurdist stretch of “Roma” comes when Cleo tries to find Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who had knocked her up and disappeared when she mentioned her pregnancy. This washed-out black-and-white film never looks so engagingly ugly as it does when Cleo walks through a stretch of town that’s desolate despite being heavily populated. In the background, a politician gives a stump speech and a circus performer is shot out of a cannon.
Fermin is taking an outdoor martial arts class from a guy in a funny costume. But it seems legit enough, and if you say nothing else about “Roma,” say this: It’s the first movie to get viewers to try standing on one leg, arms overhead, eyes closed, attempting perfect balance.
Cuaron doesn’t underline anything in “Roma”; throwaway dialog and crucial moments, dog shit and hugs, are given equal weight in the film’s slice-of-life approach. So I felt kind of proud of myself that I noticed the brief moment that illustrates “Roma’s” point: Every martial-arts student and bystander struggles to copy the instructor’s perfect balance … except Cleo, who has no trouble with it.
We understand in this moment that she could’ve done amazing things in a non-stratified society of equal opportunity. Early ’70s Mexico is clearly not that, but as the remainder of “Roma” shows, Cleo can still carve out a slice of contentment. But what a journey it is to get there, for both lead character and viewer: slightly exhilarating, and totally draining – a future film-appreciation-class staple that’s definitely not for everybody.