“Roma headlines a Oaxacan woman of color who pierces the idea of a nebulous Latino or Hispanic identity.”
Title: Roma (2018)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón 👨🏽🇲🇽
Writer: Alfonso Cuarón 👨🏽🇲🇽
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Much has already been made of Roma, Netflix’s latest film to be released on the big screen before being made available for streaming. Critics have lavished the Mexican film with glowing reviews, and Christopher Orr of The Atlantic calls it “quite possibly both the best film of Cuarón’s career to date and the best film of the year.”
I can see where everyone is coming from. Roma exhibits quiet intimacy from start to finish, perhaps due to the inherently personal nature of the story as Cuarón recounts his memories of growing up in Oaxaca in the 1970s under the care of his nanny, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated.
And if intimacy is the message, then visual artistry is Cuarón’s megaphone. Camerawork and script both deliver stripped down realism that elevates the mundane into breathtaking tableaus. Black and white minimalism forms a thin membrane that barely conceals surging emotions that threaten to break free at any moment. This dichotomy lends the film a delicious, almost ominous tension between stillness and wracking grief. Furthermore, it lends the film its energy. Without this precariousness, the movie slips into “indie” formalism that can feel slow and—dare I say?—at times boring.
I can’t express how radical it feels to see Cleo, a Oaxacan woman played by first-timer Yalitza Aparicio, centered as the main character. On the one hand, it's wonderful to finally have such rare representation. When was the last time you saw a high profile movie that even gave housekeepers names, much less featured them as main characters? On the other hand, Roma makes you confront your own surprise at seeing domestic workers live rich lives outside of their places of work.
I felt chastened by my own biases, of the exhilaration I experienced at seeing Cleo and fellow houseworker Adela (Nancy García García) sprinting down the streets of Mexico City, humanized through laughter and flirtatious double dates at the movie theater, as well as through searing loss and deeply complicated relationships with their well-meaning employers.
On gender specifically, Cuarón deserves kudos for crafting a feminist film that never stumbles in its realism. Men are portrayed with flaws, as they let down the women in their lives whether through extramarital affairs or through the prioritizing of politics and violence over fatherhood. The situations are painfully recognizable, but thankfully, Roma never feels as if it’s demonizing nor excusing men for such poor behavior. As with the entire film, it merely holds an unflinching mirror up to society—in this case, to the uglier realities of what it means to be a woman held hostage by patriarchy.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 100% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Roma glides through this category as it issues a clear reminder of how economic inequality, race, and skin color are deeply intertwined. The film doesn’t just feature a Latina as its main character; it casts a Oaxacan woman of color who pierces the idea of a nebulous Latino or Hispanic identity—fabricated groupings that really only makes sense for American political coalition-building, anyway. Helmed by a Mexican filmmaker, it makes sense that Cuarón illustrates the diversity of his native country with ease. The family that Cleo and Adela serve are clearly white and their light-skinned privilege goes without saying as domestic workers of color uniformly occupy a lower economic strata in the film. During the scenes of New Year’s merrymaking, white Hispanic families dance upstairs while Cleo is led downstairs by the host family’s older employee, and into the basement kitchen where staff—all of them people of color—hold raucous celebrations of their own.
Across the entire film, the social divisions are never stated but always crystal clear. It doesn’t matter how much sincere love passes between Cleo and her employer Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira), or between Cleo the children that she and Adela take care of. They’ll never belong to the same community, and that’s precisely how colorism and racial inequality can poison otherwise pure bonds of love between individuals borne to different worlds.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.83/5
Roma shocks, uplifts, and breaks your heart simply by shining an expertly exposed spotlight on reality. The universal humanity portrayed by Cleo reminds us that real life is all the drama Hollywood needs to create a deeply moving story. Congratulations to Cuarón for this truly spectacular work of art, and may there be more films to come that bring fresh authenticity to untold stories.