Film Review: “Roma” — A Soulful Masterpiece

By Isaac Feldberg

Roma speaks volumes about the ways in which men abuse and abandon the women in their lives; ultimately, the film is a declaration of feminine power, the might of the mother and the idea that women only have themselves to rely on.

Roma, directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Somerville Theatre, and West Newton Cinema. Also streaming on Netflix.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, Carlos Peralta Jacobson as Paco, and Daniela Demesa as Sofi in “Roma.” Photo: Alfonso Cuarón.

Roma is Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeous, neorealist ode to his formative years growing up in ’70s Mexico City, and to the housekeeper he took for granted as she carried him through that tumultuous decade.

Coming from one of our greatest and most compassion filmmakers, this is a movie of little moments made monumental through the director’s panoramic treatment; many have called Roma a “memory play,” and that’s about right. Focusing on a young woman who works as a maid for an upper-class family unit that collapses and reforms even as their neighborhood dissolves around them, the narrative has the expressive feel of a memoir written in poetic verse. It is a masterpiece, a soulful and often dreamlike discovery of the power of cinema. Cuarón’s radically empathetic eye — unmitigated in this, his cri de coeur — ensures an arresting clarity, not just of translucent black-and-white images, but also of emotional heft. When hailstones pepper the pavestones, they glimmer like gems sent down from heaven. An entire world is evoked in one shot: the housekeeper lying on a rooftop, her head touching that of a child in her care, the pair of them breathing in sunlight.

Roma is named both for the Colonia Roma district in which Cuarón was raised and as an allusion to the film of the same name by the great Federico Fellini, another sumptuous evocation of time and place. That film so thoroughly filled every corner of the frame with crisply shot, finely shaded imagery you could have resold the reel as a coffee-table book. There was so much to look at that you could not possibly see it all in the limited window of time the director gave you, and that was the point. What Fellini demonstrated with his Roma was how locations contain multitudes; his film blurred the mundane and the mesmeric. Cuarón’s Roma is cut from the same cinematic cloth.

Cuarón lensed Roma himself, without the help of frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. We become lost in this world, one that no longer exists, enamored of how intimately we understand the forces that formed Cuarón, personally as well as an artist. This is a technical coup, but also a narrative one; the movie is so finely paced, its beauty so generously lavished throughout, that it feels we are always seeing something new and deeply profound.

The first shot of the movie is surely one of the most beautiful of the year. (Not to mention immediate validation of critical claims that the film, despite being released on Netflix, constitutes necessary theater viewing.) We see sudsy water, sloshing over courtyard pavestones; for a moment we are taken out of time, out of place. This wordless sequence contains a vision of life itself, the serene coursing of everything across the surface of reality.  As the water floods forward, a balcony comes into view, then a plane flying overhead. The outside world quietly announces itself to this tranquil domicile; it is both threat and promise, a tantalizing hint of the world beyond and of what’s to come. But before we even learn about the source of the water — or meet Cleo, the Mixteco Mesoamerican housekeeper mopping the floors — the shot has choreographed the presence of beauty in the everyday, suggesting that what is at once corporeal and obvious is, in other senses, mythic and intricate.

Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, a non-actress who could teach master classes in subtlety. She was a teacher-in-training deep in Oaxaca when teams dispatched by Cuarón on a casting call discovered her. Aparicio’s lack of pretense, the  naturalism with which she embodies this character, is astounding. There are those who’ll diminish the turn as a “non-performance” by a woman who is simply playing herself. But they will be sorely mistaken; Aparicio’s work is of staggering power. It is without question one of the year’s best.

Roma focuses on Cleo as she goes about her daily life, caring for a family that seems entirely reliant on her labors to hold itself together. She is responsible for waking the children up each morning, for feeding them; at night, she tucks them into bed with a soft smile and a kiss goodnight. There is dog excrement everywhere, left too frequently for Cleo to clean away before it is stepped on or rolled over by car tires;  we get the sense of a family unable to deal with its own shit.

At first, Roma is content to follow the maid around, experiencing her routine labors and the dutiful tenacity with which she goes about completing them. Cuarón takes care to ensure that Cleo comes across as a fully formed human being. We are introduced to her fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García) and employer Sofía (Marina De Tavira, heartbreaking) in short order.

More is made of the women of the house than the man, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who is often away on “business trips” that occur with such regularity as to make his own discontent apparent. In one scene, Sofía begs her uncomprehending children to write to their father and implore him to return home. But the predominance of women, too, is simply a fact of reality in Roma;  we understand that this is just how things are.

Cuarón’s overriding compassion for Cleo, and his tender treatment of Adela and Sofía even as background characters, most often takes the form of simply letting their lives unspool at length. In foregrounding these women, he needs not make specific, overt mention of their hopes and dreams; these are written on their faces, conveyed in the alternately wistful and dedicated manner of their movements. That we see them so clearly is Roma’s most radical facet; for Cuarón, it is clear he can do the unsung heroes of his life no greater service than to make them the centers of their own worlds.

Roma is inevitably a film about class; Cleo’s unusual dual role as servant and confidante in the household means that she occupies a not-always-comfortable liminal space between employee and family member, at once exploited and embraced (and sometimes in one the other). She is beloved by this family but also invisible to them. The sad irony is that she is a woman without child and a more maternal figure to the family’s quartet of rascally kids than their own mother. It’s no coincidence we often see her looking through windows, or framed in doorways; there’s a key scene where she rides in the car with the family and seems distanced from the children she’s embracing.

Cuarón dodges the obvious trap of prioritizing his own story.  One of a family’s dissolution, a collapsed marriage, the debris of which he was in part able to navigate because of his own nanny. He ensures that we bear witness to Cleo’s complete reality as a human being. Indeed, though it’s implied Cuarón was one of the children, they are shot as a laughing, clamoring mob, four innocents unaware of the world beyond wherever Cleo guides them.  (Try recalling any of their faces after the film and you’ll understand how slyly tertiary they are to the director.)

Instead, what he prioritizes are the piquant flavors of Cleo’s life, the little jokes she makes with Adela, trips to the movies (one, Marooned, is a low-budget space jaunt we’re left to wager was an inspiration for Cuarón’s own Gravity) and, more calamitously, Cleo’s dalliance with Adela’s cousin Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast who practices with a bowstaff in the nude after they make love. But he is violently resentful of being made vulnerable in other, less self-decided ways. When she tells him that she’s pregnant, he disappears into thin air, a harsh rejection of her hopeful attempt to build a family of her own; a later attempt to reconnect with Fermin while bearing his child results in even more brutish cruelty. There’s little mention of what she sees in Fermin, apart from a man who could deign to treat her like her own person, not a servant or  emotional support. And yet, there’s a separate movie to be made about the ways in which Fermin is molded by the shifting socioeconomic and political tides of Mexico City at that time, one we see only in fleeting glimpses.

Roma speaks volumes about the ways in which men abuse and abandon the women in their lives; ultimately, the film is a declaration of feminine power, the might of the mother and the idea that women only have themselves to rely on.

Waves batter Cleo on all sides, harsh realities taking the form of calamities as primordial as earthquakes (critically, one strikes as she surveys a hospital room of incubators, a prelude of future disasters) and as visceral as student protests turned violent, spilling blood out onto the streets of Mexico City. It’s not identified, but Cuarón clearly reconceives the Corpus Cristi Massacre of 1971 by way of Cleo’s personal recollection of the event: she is abruptly held at gunpoint while out shopping for a crib. It is one of the most harrowing long-take sequences of the director’s career, which is filled with them. Fermin factors into this sequence too, a damning reminder of how truly monstrous it is to be terrorized by the ones we thought could love us.

The real-life inspiration for Cleo was a surrogate mother figure for Cuarón. The filmmaker sees in this woman the true meaning of beauty itself, generous and maternal, wry and thoughtful, compassionate to the point that she must often remind herself of her own needs. What a fascinating double-bill this would be with The Remains of the Day, another extraordinary film about servants and masters, of lives lived for others and of the inherent tragedy in sustained dignity. Ishiguro wrote in that film’s literary inspiration: “After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” In crafting this tribute to a woman who gave her life for him, Cuarón asks that same question. The film’s weakness may be that it doesn’t offer an answer. But then again, how could it? Cleo’s perspective (envisioned by Cuarón) is the slice at the heart of this slice-of-life narrative. Decades later, Roma does not disguise that its muse’s career path meant she did not have a voice of her own, an injustice no one can fully rectify retrospectively.

Instead, Cuarón floods the frame with gratitude and generosity, an admiration for Cleo that is effusive and all-consuming. He pays specific attention to the tragedies that befall her. A late-in-the-film hospital scene is a horror story in miniature, awash in unspeakable grief and loss — its emotions are carried off beautifully by Aparicio. But this is less a cruel film than an honest one. Even in Roma’s moments of suffering, there is the promise of survival. No scene sums this up better than a climactic trip to the seashore in which Cleo wades into the ocean and risks drowning, a sequence that transfixes as it juxtaposes the movie’s twin themes: life and death crashing around each other in constant, terrible balance.

A scene from “Roma.” Photo: Alfonso Cuarón.

Again we return to the sea. Water has long served as stunning visual shorthand for Cuarón’s career-long study of death and maternity, from Y Tu Mamá También’s paralleling of sexual discovery and a swimming pool to Sandra Bullock’s crash-down baptism in ocean waters as she literally descends from Gravity’s hellish heavens. In Roma, too, water is elemental and omniscient, giving life and taking it. What defines Cuarón’s sui generis cinematic language is how it is, to paraphrase Keats, writ in water. It’s everywhere, abstract then visceral: in the hand of a child shot off-screen for throwing water balloons at an army vehicle; around Cleo in that climactic, heart-wrenching beach scene where she is risking nothing less than her life. It is in the hail that rains down at a key moment of transition for the family Cleo treasures; it is in the laundry the housekeeper does daily to keep them afloat. She herself is made of waters; the tears of a woman belonging to a family that is and can never be her own, the amniotic water that breaks and seeps around her feet at a moment that should have been joyous.

In Gravity, water was the last of three crucibles — the others being air and fire — that Bullock’s grieving astronaut faced in her symbolically laden journey from the wreck of a space station back to Earth. She nearly drowns while touching down in a lake. There are similar trials in Roma: a forest fire Cleo witnesses at a New Year’s party, that final sequence on the beach. But water has long signified regeneration, and it plays that role too in Roma. The notion of flow is part of the film’s view of memory; it is also tied into what it has to say about time’s ceaseless passage. Back to Fellini. In attempting to capture the spirit of his childhood, Cuarón has made a film that will perhaps mean more to him than anyone else alive; this is not to say he holds the audience at length but that he provides them with an unparalleled, deeply unusual kind of access to the inside of his head. In this, he is very much reflecting his cinematic master; Cuarón’s camera moves with an almost desperate precision. He feels that the world he is creating is but a dream, made of sand and dust, destined to blow away in the wind if he doesn’t capture it in his lens quickly enough. Maybe he’s right about that.

One of the strangest things about Roma, and something you do not realize until close to its end, is that it does not have a score. For Cuarón, music is to be found in the movements of life itself, sounds generated in the quiet vistas of forgotten neighborhoods and by the faded faces in a bustling cityscape. These are not all sounds of beauty; the most salient in Roma is the plaintive, knowing but uncomprehending cry of a woman cradling a dying man in her arms. He has been shot, fatally, during the massacre; we are chilled by how furiously and incessantly death dances along the border of life.

There’s a great deal of trauma in Roma, and much about how its long shadow shapes the future. Cuarón expresses this best in his long takes: the way the camera moves sometimes gently, other times with ruthless haste, but always with a sense of headlong motion. Roma is sometimes surrealist and abstract, but overall it is about the trials and tribulations of the brave women who tend to the lives of the young ones. And the absurd men who abandon them for flights of folly. Not for nothing do we see (or if you blinked, miss) a man being shot out of a cannon during a wide shot of slums; and when we rejoin Fermin, the erstwhile father of Cleo’s child, it is at a comical ranch where he is being trained in tranquility by a martial arts master. (Of course, Cleo is the only one who can achieve the balance necessary for the master’s maneuver. She, and every woman, has been practicing her whole life.)

We are lucky Cuarón chose to make Roma. The lives of Mexican hired help are not ones we usually see depicted on screen. It is the unjust work of capitalism and the film industry that their struggles and triumphs are not deemed to be “cinematic enough.” To society, they and their subjugation remain invisible. We don’t often get to look at people like Cleo, to note how beautiful their lives are, how much they mean to others. What makes Roma so special might be that it cares enough to look so closely — and, in doing so, to help us see.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.


  1. Monica Hileman on December 19, 2018 at 11:02 pm

    Masterpiece? Not. Cuarón’s distance from the characters give the film a hollowness and the scenes feel contrived.

  2. Tom Spiro on January 7, 2019 at 11:53 am

    Nice review of a thoroughly riveting film. As for the above comment about distance between the director and the characters: perhaps as a memoir from childhood it is a separation not only of time but emotional maturity. I thought the director gots this right. One small detail. The martial arts clubs were being exploited by land owners and undercover police to serve as agent provocateurs against the students and peasants occupying the huge latifunfundia. The young man was not only being trained in martial arts, but being brainwashed to hate himself, his people and his own class embodied by the main character and her unborn child. I would hope this movie gets recognition as a masterpiece.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts