Set in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City, this film centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker who assumes the roles of maid and nanny in a hectic household, much like the one that director Alfonso Cuarón grew up in.
Roma has been described as Cuarón’s love letter to Libo Rodríguez, his childhood nanny. The film is dedicated to Libo.
Cleo’s affection for the four boisterous children is evident throughout the film. She nuzzles them awake, lends an interested and sympathetic ear, and sings them to sleep. And somehow she also finds the time to do laundry, tidy the rooms, help fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) with the cooking, carry luggage, and clean the alleyway where the family dog (Borras) runs loose and defecates.
The four children adore Cleo; in particular, the youngest child Pepe (Marco Graf), who has an active imagination. Possibly a stand-in for Cuarón?
The adults in the household are more restrained, conscious of the socioeconomic differences that exist. While they are fond of Cleo, they also take her for granted. She is both an insider and an outsider. But when Cleo discovers she is pregnant and alone, her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira) sympathizes and arranges for health care.
Sofia’s marriage to Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is also unraveling. Restless and unhappy, Antonio leaves his family, claiming to participate in a research project in Quebec. Later, we learn that he has moved into another woman’s house in Mexico City. In one poignant scene, Sofia asks her children to write letters to their father, asking him to return.
Humor is found in the most unexpected places. Both Sofia and Antonio lack the skills to properly navigate their enormous Ford Galaxy. They manage to scrape the sides of the car in their own alleyway and, in another case, involve two other vehicles on a busy street. In a later scene, a group of exercise fanatics struggle to stand on one leg.
Alfonso Cuarón wrote, produced, directed, and shot this film. His passion and attention to detail are evident in each scene. Everything from the haircuts to the clothes to the furniture to the cars to the Mexico World Cup 1970 poster has been selected with care.
Filming in black-and-white adds to the authenticity. I could easily imagine myself walking down those busy streets in Mexico City. As for the violent scenes…they appear even more real. Cuarón has included a dramatization of an actual historical event, the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, in which soldiers gunned down protestors and pursued them into their hiding places.
Having already received Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture—Foreign Language, Roma is a major contender this awards season. As for the Oscars…I predict another Best Director award along with Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Film.