ROMA, Mexico, 2018, Black and white. Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Rivera. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron 135 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes and nudity).
Roma? Rome Italy? No, this Roma is a middle-class section of Mexico City. The setting is the early 1970s.
In fact, this film is a fictionalised memoir written by the director, Alfonzo:Cuaron (who has had quite a varied career with films in his native Mexico as well is a broad, a version of The Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, P.D.James Children of Men, and Oscar for his direction of Gravity).
Roma has received quite a number of awards, including the Golden Lion in Venice, 2018, and Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. (And, it could be noted that Roma won the SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) award in Venice.)
Technically, the film has won great acclaim for its qualities in black-and-white photography and its use of 65 mm film. It is a reminder of how much can be achieved and the beauty of black-and-white photography.
The film is quite episodic in its structure, a series of events that takes place over a year, events for a middle-class family, a devoted mother, her shock at her husband leaving her and her pretence that he is away in Canada on research, her four children, three boys and a little girl. The audience is taken inside the family, sharing the details of its life.
While the family events provide the framework for the film, the focus is on the young maid, Cleo, an indigenous woman from a village, only moderately educated, employed as a servant, but the children devoted to her. She figures in the episodes, the film providing a portrait of Cleo (expertly portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio), a contrast to the Hispania-Mexican family in her slight appearance, her quiet and respectful manner.
Many have rightly commented that the film invites the audience into this world and immerses it in the world. There are episodes in the home. There is an episode where a big group of families goes on a holiday together, extroverted jollity, then everybody being called on to put out some forest fires at the back of the house.
On the personal side, Cleo has an encounter with a young man who vainly demonstrates his progress in martial arts. When she goes to the cinema with him and tells him that she is pregnant, he disappears, although she tracks him down at an extended sequence out in the countryside of people watching a large group of young men, going through their martial arts paces, presided over by a Guru who asks them to do a simple movement, hands joined above their heads, one leg on eighth I and keeping balance – most of them are unable to do this but, in a quite simple way, Cleo achieves this.
There are scenes at the hospital where the sympathetic mother of the family takes Cleo and she is treated well by the doctor – and this will be repeated later in the film when Cleo gives birth. The background to this sequence of birth is quite powerful, Cleo going to a fashionable store for the family to buy her a cot for the baby, watching crowds of young people outside, joining for a protest, watching the police attack from the store windows, some of the young people pursuing others through the store (including the violent father of Cleo’s baby). There is shooting, traffic is jammed, and urgency to get Cleo to the hospital.
There is a sequence towards the end when the mother takes the children, invites Cleo to the children’s acclaim, to go to the seaside where she explains the family situation to the children. When they go into the surf, they go out too far and Cleo, who does not swim, quietly goes out to save them and bring them in.
A synopsis of the film might not seem too exciting but there is a humanity about the situations and characters, the memories of the director, which make an emotional impact.
And, at the end, the film is dedicated to Libo. In fact, she is the servant in the Cuaron family life whose life and devotion is dramatised on screen as Cleo.
Netflix Released 6th December
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.