From minute one, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma looks confident and alert to itself. The brave opening shot holds on a tile floor. It watches as water splashes across the tiles, and then the water gets sudsy. By the time the image tilts upward, you see that the place is a garage which looks out to a street, and a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is washing the family dog’s poop from the floor before the father comes home.
Cuarón was his own cinematographer, and he shot the film in black and white. The title, Roma, is the name of the neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up, but both the title and the color palette recall the work in black and white of the great Italian neorealist filmmaker of the 1940s and ‘50s Roberto Rossellini, as well as the neo-realist devotion to the lives that people actually lead. It’s an ambitious project for Cuarón, and he gets some of it, but not all of it.
What the movie does best is catch the textures of the home and the city. It’s the beginning of the 1970s. A prosperous but not rich family live here. The father is a doctor; the mother was a biochemist, but now she has a flock of children, and the household includes a grandmother and two young women servants. Roma gives time and space to the look of the house, the family at meals; the parents driving the children to school. The maids Cleo and Adela do laundry, fuss with the children and clean up after everyone. The father is often away, but the mother is mostly kind to her servants, except when she wants something badly enough to snap and call them stupid.
The movie introduces the father with a straight-on shot of his immense Ford Galaxy, lining up to enter the narrow garage. It’s a play on the notion of “Daddy’s home.” Cuarón stares at the car long enough to make the father’s power look a little silly, and when the car scrapes along the walls, and then Dad steps in the dog poop, you realize that this man has less dignity than he hopes.
All these things have a touching rhythm to them; the black and white is stark, yet it also brings an urgent abstraction to the movie. But Roma is also oddly detached. During two plus hours, there’s an earthquake, a forest fire, a divorce and the near-drowning of two of the children, but none of this has staying power. It’s a movie without repercussions. When the grandmother and the morosely pregnant Cleo shop for a crib, paramilitary thugs in the street below attack a student demonstration – this really happened – and they kill a lot of people. The terror throws Cleo into a tizzy, but no one else seems terribly upset. Even the comic moments feel as if the brakes are on – you get chuckles, but no full-out laughs.
Like the Italian pictures Roma evokes, Cuarón looks to the unfair distinctions between social classes. The family looks European; Cleo and Adela are shorter and rounder and look more Indian. Roma shows neighborhoods and people we in the U.S. simply don’t get to see, and the movie is always aware that servants are part of the families they serve, until they’re not. Cleo puts the children to bed –with love and devotion – then she heads up a steep, lonely, outdoor metal stairway to where she gets to do the washing.
Roma won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September. It’s been praised to the skies. I have reservations. I mentioned to a friend in the film business that I don’t think the movie has the richness or the depth of those Italian films Alfonso Cuarón so obviously loves. The friend indicated that I was comparing it to the very best. Yes. That’s what I’m doing. That’s the standard.