Alfonso Cuaron has just created one of the best films I’ve viewed in a long time. Roma, named after the upper-class neighborhood in which Cuaron grew up in Mexico City, was released to Netflix in mid-December and I watched it almost immediately. I’m a huge fan of Children of Men and so, in spite of the fact that the early information on the film was that it was light on plot, I had high expectations.
Roma doesn’t need a plot and it doesn’t need to meet my expectations, because it is transcendent. From the jazz-like meditative pacing of the photography, to the quiet introspection of the characters, to the oddly affecting and terrifying scenes of mass violence, Cuaron is revealed to be a master.
From the very start, the camera sets a languid tone to the film as it lingers while water stained with dirty soap washes over a clay tile. Life is a constant battle against the dirtiness and grime of our lower impulses, but even here the camera manages to catch a reflection of the sky in the shining clay as a sign of contradiction. The film proceeds to examine the ways in which human beings have shattered the basis of our happiness by rejecting the very communities that allow us to discover ourselves in the self-sacrifice of love, the disastrous mistake we make when we reorient our hope on petty, short-sighted, selfish goals and so define ourselves by the very worst impulses of our fallen nature. In particular, the adult men in the film are present only by the wake of destruction they trail behind them. The few times they’re actually on camera they’re indulging in phallic displays [graphic male nudity alert, although there is nothing sexual about it at all], giant, expensive cars, obsessing over the more ridiculous aspects of pseudo-martial arts, and making unwanted advances on grieving women. For the most part, though, it’s the women and children who take center stage, and it’s the women who are left behind to pick up the pieces. The results are broken families and miscarried lives. Easily the most damaging scene emotionally is the family maid Cleo’s labor amid the alienating atmosphere of a massive hospital and the subsequent stillbirth of her child. It’s odd that every other review I’ve read ignores this scene and insists that the emotional highlight of the film is the murdered student in the arms of a screaming woman – I’ll get back to this in a moment – The intimacy of the family breakdown is mirrored in the car crash of wider culture grinding to a halt, as Cleo simply wants to buy a crib for her child but finds herself involuntarily in the midst of the Corpus Christi Massacre.
The film is a tribute to the maid who raised Cuaron and the story is semi-autobiographical. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Cleo, a maid for the family that Cuaron grew up in. Cleo is patronized by her employers at times and occasionally is victimized as the object of transferred emotional negativity, but at other times it becomes clear that this family deeply loves and considers her one of them.
As Cuaron often does, the subplots are subtle and hinted at obliquely, but slowly reveal themselves to be connected to the main plot. The device works perfectly as he depicts much of the film from the perspective of Cleo, who is a silent, strong rock reluctant to be broken open. Her concerns are the day to day of serving the family and loving the children in her care. From this vantage point, significant details begin to seep in, an overheard phone call or a hushed conversation of which we only catch the end. There are two overlapping worlds competing for our attention. The world of wealthy doctors, political happenings, violence, and sex, or the world of a family in its domestic intimacy. Cuaron makes clear which one he thinks is more important.
Hollywood is obsessed with getting us to eat, pray, and love our way around the world, to define our own existences by our passions. We are treated to a steady diet of biographic pics that lionize horribly flawed individuals who abandoned their families but checked an arbitrary box of greatness and are thus deemed worthy of admiration, tragic heroes who abandoned everything to follow their hearts, and etc. In the frenzy to leave behind those we have supposedly outgrown and move on the instant we no longer sense emotional advantages in any particular relationship, Roma is the antidote we need. It is a quietly devastating critique of a world gone mad. It is not the brave protesters who clash with police who are the heroes of this film, not at all, in a sense, they are part of the problem. Thus, to my mind, the lack of plot is intentional. The real story, the real meaning of life, the real heroes are the ones who stay. It is the family that is central, and the tragedies and joys of domestic life are the stuff of human dignity. While they may seem small when compared to plot-heavy, moralizing tales of significant world events and gutsy personal rebellions, it is actually this stuff, in Roma the “other” stuff that is supposedly on the order of world-changing geopolitical events, that are the background noise. Those events are important in their own way, but they are contingent on and subservient to the family drama. This is a brave film of opposition. A film that celebrates the beauty of a quiet, faithful life with family and shows absolutely no sympathy for the intellectuals, the politicians, the egotistical madmen of our era. The family is the story, and all who depart from it have chosen an easier, more boring and inhuman path, one that, ultimately, isn’t worth the bother of filming.
When Cleo finally breaks down and lets out her grief and guilt after the death of her baby, the moment is well-earned and we see the toll that a world that sneers at innocent life takes on the family. There is inner strength hidden within this unassuming woman, but even she has been broken at the hands of an uncaring, anti-human, pro-death world. It is only in the family that she is able to find healing.
The film ends not with a grand climax but by gently receding into domestic bliss. Cleo climbs the stairs to the rooftop to do laundry. An airplane slowly plows through a clear sky. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The family is a symbol of the world, holding within it by extension the whole of creation. The camera, which began the film focusing on clay tile, the earthy stuff from which we human beings are made, gently pans upward to take in a view of the wide open sky.