It’s been hailed as one of the best films of the year by multiple critics and film organisations and is no doubt leading the way in terms of Oscar buzz. Alfonso Cuarón’s tale of a young maid in a middle class neighbourhood as Mexico’s “Dirty War” between the right-wing government and left-wing student and guerrilla groups takes place just out of sight of the gated houses that the family reside in.
Cleo moves throughout the familial space with deftness and a semi-invisibility that Cuarón reinforces through a static camera that captures the house’s curves and numerous room that Cleo never fully inability. Her space within the family is one that provides physical and emotional labour – the children love her, yet she is often reminded that she is not equal to the family that she is nominally a part of. While watching a film, she silently moves to sit on the floor before being asked almost immediately to fetch a drink. Any danger she puts herself in for the family is taken for granted after a brief thanks, and they swiftly move on.
Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo is the soul of the film, and any whispers of a best actress nomination would be well deserved – prior to Roma she had no formal acting experience but her naturalism and beautiful energy is truly engaging. Aparicio is an indigenous Mexican woman, and Cuarón uses a mixture of Spanish and Mixtec languages further depict the differences between the world of maids and the family. Cleo and Adela, the other maid, code-switch between the two languages, something which upsets the youngest boy Pepe, who insists that they stop talking like that. As speakers of the language it is logical that the two women would speak Mixtec, but the inclusion of minority language is a big-budget Netflix film is a welcome addition in an industry that so often resorts to stereotyped language choices.
There is a constant edge of danger and unease throughout Roma that is only examined – and then only to a certain extent – in the third act. Trumpets blare out of tune, a man parades the street shouting and a forest fire breaks up a New Year’s party, violence is a consistent undercurrent of their lives but when it finally breaks to the surface it’s brutality and viciousness is almost unbearable.
Cuarón’s camera often stays on the action, but chooses not to venture from the main protagonist, especially in the two separate and disturbing sequences in the hospital. The black and white film gives Roma a crisp, clean aesthetic – almost dreamlike in it’s slow movement around Cleo and the family.
Unlike many other critics, I haven’t been taken by the film. I’ve pondered over aspects and the birth has not stopped playing in my mind since, but overall my reaction was lukewarm. The ending felt unsatisfying, like whatever has happened in the previous two hours had little impact on the future of Cleo. But then again, maybe that’s the point.