Roma is intimate, epic and female-focused, not unlike filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 intergalactic 3-D odyssey Gravity, during which Sandra Bullock’s grieving medical specialist is nearly lost in space on her first shuttle mission.
But Roma is also an immersive nostalgic valentine to his ‘70s childhood in Mexico City and the women who raised him, his mother and especially his self-less and devoted live-in caretaker. Novice actress Yalitza Aparicio — who hails from Oaxaca like her character, Cleo — is fully believable as someone who puts herself second and the family she serves first. Images speak louder than words, especially those that involve H2O: The daily ritual of mopping up the family dog’s piles of poop from the terrace-like garage floor with buckets of water; the breaking of a pregnant Cleo’s water in a furniture store as the student protestors outside become violent; and her daunting and haunting ocean rescue of the four children in her care.
The dialogue is sparse, which creates a distancing effect at times. But not since Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor, a doctor turned actor who used his own experience of being in a Cambodian prison to inform his role as a journalist in 1985’s The Killing Fields, has a first-timer like Aparicio injected such authenticity into a role that is elevated by her own life experiences.
“Roma” also takes men to task for their cowardly ways and lack of responsibility for those they supposedly love. When Cleo tells her beau she is having his baby, he denies it is his and deserts her. When it becomes clear that the deceptive head of the house (Fernado Grediaga) is cheating on his wife (Marina de Tavira), she simply packs up her children and their maid to take some time off at a family friend’s hacienda. In a curious if savage scene worthy of Fellini, a servant shows Cleo an unsettling array of mounted dog heads of deceased pets on several walls that belonged to the household.
But my favorite part of Roma might be the hulking Ford Galaxie that barely fits the space allotted for it as the father performs a daily ritual of squeezing it into narrow garage as if he were threading a needle. Nothing says toxic masculinity like a big-ass car that is impractical. Tavira’s matriarch almost can’t wait to abuse her spouse’s vehicle as she squeezes it between two wide trucks at a traffic light without a care about the resulting damage. It is such colorful human moments, both foreign yet relatable as they are drawn from real life, that elevates Roma beyond a scrapbook of remembrances of things past.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Roma is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for January 25, 2019. The film won five 2018 EDA Awards: Best Film and Best non-English Language Film, and Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Editing for Cuaron.