“Roma”

 

            The tag line certainly isn't very alluring:  “a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970's.”  But this is a labor of love for Oscar-winning Writer and Director Alfonso Cuaron.  “Roma” captures the sights and sounds of his own boyhood.

            Cuaron decides to use unknown actors, and that method successfully convinces us that these aren't professionals playing a role, these are real people, with real problems in their lives.

            The main character is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who's a maid and a nanny.  Actually, she's the assistant housekeeper, her good friend Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) is the primary chef;  Cleo is the one who mops and makes the beds and washes the dishes does the lanudry and cleans the dog poop off the driveway.  And since she's the one who reads the children their bedtime stories, and referees their fights, and walks to school to escort them home, she's the one they gravitate toward, sometimes at the exclusion of their mother, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira).  She works full-time and has four kids, so she's usually exhausted and frequently distracted.  The Dad, Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a busy doctor who's mostly gone, and especially now that he has a research project in Canada. 

            The tag line about a “middle class family” seems to stretch credulity by our contemporary standards.  To have both a chef/housekeeper and a nanny/maid would require considerable expense in our culture, so it would likely be in the exclusive province of the “one per centers.”  But of course there are racial/ethnic ramifications here, as there likely would be in our society, as well.  Here, the employers are white, the help is not.  Though we aren't told for certain, Cleo appears to be “indigenous,” which in Central American stratification would still be below the economic class of the standard Hispanic mixture, which in turn is often considered inferior by the “Castillion” families that trace their ancestry to the original Spanish settlers.  Yeah, it's complicated.  But in those days, intermarriage was not common, and deep prejudices insured the perpetuation of a rigid caste system.

            Though Cleo works virtually all the time, she has recently enjoyed the company of a young man, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a friend of her cousin.  She's flattered by the attention---it's practically the only fun in her life---but alas, her trust and affection are misplaced.  Now she's pregnant and he wants nothing to do with her, calling her a “servant.”  His interest in martial arts foreshadows a very strange nude scene which features a naked man wielding a stick, and we're supposed to celebrate his perfect form?

            Cleo is afraid that Sra. Sofia will fire her because of her pregnancy, but it turns out that Sra. Sofia has problems of her own.  She finds out that her husband isn't in Canada at all;  he's in town, but spending time with his mistress.  She's so shocked and embarrassed by his abandonment that she attempts to maintain the charade with her children that their father is coming home soon, he's just delayed.  Well, we'd all like things to be how we would like for them to be, rather than how they really are.

            Cuaron lulls us with a very deliberate pacing, and the black and white cinematography adds to the feel of a quieter, simpler time.  But that makes the traumatic events even more dramatic.

            It's a slice-of-life movie, with subtitles, that people will probably ignore in droves, unless it wins awards.  And with the way Cuaron draws us into his world, it just might.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association