starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta
written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón
by Walter Chaw Alfonso Cuarón retreats from the noisy silliness of Gravity to produce something more in line with his A Little Princess--a touch of Children of Men thrown in for topical relevance and actual gravity. It's all in black-and-white, no less, with a non-professional lead and Cuarón himself operating the camera, shooting in 65mm. What results is the slow but dulcet, small but sometimes impossibly large Roma, capturing the microcosm of the immigration question in one wealthy family's interactions with their native servants, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia), and what happens when the small tragedies of the day-to-day intersect with the larger tragedies of a world that doesn't care about them. The mistress of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her inconstant husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and the couple's four small children live in a posh house in Mexico City sometime in the late-1960s. (An event in the film that is probably the Tlateloco Massacre sets the events somewhere around October of 1968.) Cuarón has called Roma his most personal film, and so it is as he continually directs attention away from the larger events at play, back to the intimate upsets of this upper-class family and their subsistence-class help. The largest scene of the film, a riot that led to a deadly confrontation between students and the military, immediately reverts to Cleo and Sofia's aged mother-in-law, Teresa (Veronica Garcia), interrupted in the middle of a shopping trip.
Roma is also home to a couple of other intimate devastations, as Cleo finds out she's pregnant by the only man she's ever slept with, ultimately to be abandoned, threatened. Sofia, drunk, tells her one night that it's a woman's burden to be alone and they are even, perhaps especially, alone in the company of men. It's the men of Roma who destroy security: the family that is the centre of the picture and the world outside it. It's the women of Roma, victimized and discarded by the men, who are left to pick up the pieces. At the end of the riot sequence, which threatens, if only for a flash, to approach the battle sequence in Children of Men, Cuarón pans away from the combatants to a young woman holding her dead boyfriend in her lap and screaming for help that probably won't arrive. In a delivery ward, it's the nurses who swaddle the infants and carry them to safety when an earthquake drops parts of the ceiling down on them. Without a wasted shot, Roma establishes every action as a metaphor for the fellowship and strength of women in the face of men's mercurial violence and caprice. It sounds like hagiography, and it is to an extent, but Sofia and Cleo are written and embodied so simply and honestly that their perseverance seems human, not saintly. If Roma speaks true about the positive role that immigrants play in the lives of the majority, its larger impact is to present a clear window into a story about recognizable human beings with recognizable struggles living in a part of the world America's current administration is devoted to dehumanizing. In its deceptive simplicity and indisputable beauty, the picture presents a strong refutation of policies designed to stoke xenophobia. It's an empathy machine. If only the ones who need to see it most, would.