You’ve already heard about Alfonso Cuaron’s authorial majesty in every moment, the black-and-white frames that capture 70’s Mexico like a high-definition photograph. You’ve heard about the semi-autobiographical nature of it all, that Roma is a loving ode to the women that raised him, but without rose-colored glasses or nostalgia filters. You’ve also heard about a collage of themes bandying through an understated narrative, the likes of Family, Love, Hope, and Change echoing from the story of one housekeeper and the family she cares for in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. What you haven’t heard is that Cuaron has produced a quiet memory of the caste system he witnessed as a child.
Played by a terrific young actress and absolute find named Yalitza Aparicio, his protagonist Cleo is one of two domestic workers for the Sofia family, made of mother Dona, father Antonio, grandma Teresa, and children Toño, Paco, Sofi, and Pepe. Serving as an essential mother figure for the kids when their real mother is drunk or in dire need of a therapist, she’s still kept at a distance despite her hard work and every day role as caretaker. She’s seen as a hired hand, regardless of dutiful pleasantries. And despite their similar lot in life, she’s derided by the boy she likes when his true colors are let out. Fermin is a member of the ambitious working class, an increasingly hostile group of social outcasts training to upend the current order. They have no time for maids, or their pregnancies. Cleo has time for everyone, for her friend and co-worker Adela, for the mother suffering at the hands of her philandering husband, and especially for the youngest son Paco, an imaginative boy who waxes ponderous on death and past lives. Possibly a stand-in for young Alfonso, the niño pequeño tells many stories, imagining himself an old soul remembering the life of a pilot or some odd fantasy. Cleo is closest to Paco, the one that seemingly loves her unconditionally and only wishes to play and picture (or remember) a thousand lifetimes.
Roma remembers the early 70’s as a time of social upheaval in Mexico City, where protesters clashed with an ardent police state and varying political factions jockeyed for position through violence. This is no message, but merely backdrop for Cleo’s journey, informing us that the hand she and others were dealt has been shunned away by those hoping and working for more than scraps. They’re desperate and willing to riot, maim, or kill to make their point, and Cleo and the Sofia family are occasionally caught in the crossfire, literally and figuratively. They hear about it from close relatives, they hear it on the news, and they watch it spill out in the streets with their own two eyes. If there’s a message buried in there somewhere among the bazaars and bizarre traffic, it’s that radicalism is a two-way street. It’s easy to get lost on it, whether you’re a surly police officer or a poor boy with a taste for martial arts. Cuaron isn’t preaching, however, he’s matter-of-factly showing us a particular time and place, one that just happens to include political turmoil. He’s not distracted by those delusions of grandeur while crafting what is really a simple tale of one woman and her surrogate family. As an audience, we get it when Ms. Sofia turns on a dime from showing Cleo grace to showing her scorn, and we get it when Cleo’s tragic circumstances are met with a quiet sympathy and little else.
Which might be why Cleo’s happy ending in the arms of said family has been deemed “problematic” by vapid corners of Film Twitter, unable to comprehend a film that doesn’t outright preach to them regarding the foibles of a caste system. Gorgeous black and white does not yield to such notions of black and white humanity, as if Cleo or Ms. Sofia must come to some obvious revelation. Cuaron’s film is a collective memory, not a college treatise, and his collage of Mexican life is too good for such a soap box. His keen eye for capturing life at the margins is all we need to understand the complexity of such a difficult relationship, between family and caretaker, between upper society and lower culture.