‘Roma’ Movie Review: Alfonso Cuaron’s Love Letter To 1970s Mexico Hits Home
If there was ever a beautifully yet horrifyingly raw portrait of a famous person’s childhood, it’s Roma.
Oscar-winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Gravity) released his first film in Spanish this year since 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien — another movie beloved in Mexico — and this time around, the result is a meticulously crafted and poignant autobiographical film by a brilliant auteur.
Roma is set in the eponymous neighborhood or “colonia” in Mexico City during the early 1970s, when 57-year-old Cuaron was just a child. The story follows a middle-class family (whose last name is unknown) led by a fiercely loving yet intimidating mother named Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and by a loyal and caring indigenous housemaid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Both together and apart, Cleo, Sofia and her four children — daughter Sofi and sons Paco, Toño and Pepe — endure joy, loss, and other hardships amid a turbulent time in Mexico’s history.
To say Roma is full of heart and authenticity would be an understatement. Cuaron demonstrates his prowess by helming this project not simply as a writer and as a director, but also by accomplishing other functions like editor and cinematographer. The veteran filmmaker does not appear to miss a single detail of the myriad aspects that comprised his childhood: every sound, image, symbol, street vendor and landscape is present, and all of these components coalesce to form Roma. Pop-culture references like television sitcoms, movies and radio stations from the era also find their place and reflect the joys of the protagonist family.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Roma is, as many news outlets have noted, that many of the actors are not even thespians to begin with. Aparicio, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, auditioned on a whim after he pregnant sister was unable to and didn’t even know who Cuaron was before meeting him, despite the filmmaker being known as one of Mexico’s most renown directors.
Nevertheless, Aparicio gives a memorable performance in this gut-wrenching film, which already won the Golden Lion after premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August. Through every look and every word she emits — or doesn’t say — the young teacher conveys with stunning genuineness what one can only imagine any lower-class woman like her might feel given everything she goes through. She displays both a childlike innocence and a galling maturity that seems rare to find in most people. The fact that Cuaron cast Aparicio’s real-life friend Nancy Garcia as Adela — another housekeeper who works for the story’s main family — makes Cleo and Adela’s strong bond throughout the film all the more enjoyable to watch.
The film elevates women like Cleo, Sofia and the latter’s mother — the children’s grandmother, who also serves as a matriarch in her own way — and excoriates men, specifically the two main men in the story: Antonio, Sofia’s distant doctor husband who makes one fatal decision that will change his wife and children’s lives forever, and Fermin, a young man who becomes Cleo’s lover and who also proves to be a heartless and cowardly brute. But the searingly memorable aspects of Roma don’t end there: the personal and the shared quickly become intertwined, as one incident mirror another. Just as Cleo and the family’s life begins to unravel, Mexico City itself also descends into utter chaos as a real-life historical event marks the capital for years to come — just as certain scenes and images from Roma will likely remain embedded in the minds and hearts of any human who has even a shred of empathy.
When Mexican people who grew up in this same time period praise the film and the recreation of the era, you know that means Cuaron has left his mark in history. Having seen this film in theaters before its official Netflix release, one thing I can say for sure is that the look on my Mexican mother’s face after we left the theater is something I will never forget: a look of awe, shock, heartbreak and other emotions that simply can’t be described. “Es mi vida,” she looked at me and said. “That’s my life.”
The film is, in the end, a celebration of humanity. In an era during which Mexico has increasingly become a culture that is feared and scorned by so many Americans (not to mention their public leaders), this portrait of a family and a nation that is so beautiful yet so broken can’t help but seem like a true depiction of what it means to live a life. Roma, among other things, shows us how sometimes even the least-expected and least-noticed people can turn into the rock that holds a family — or perhaps any type of group — together, through both happy and dark times.