Editor’s Note:Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is now streaming on Netflix.
In the tradition of European filmmakers, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón concludes his heart-wrenching memory film Roma with a dedication: “For Libo.” Libo is the recipient of one of the most affecting tributes to an ordinary person that has ever been put on film. Roma, showing at the New York Film Festival ahead of a December release on Netflix, appears certain to earn well-deserved Oscar nominations including both Best Picture and, as it is told mostly in Spanish, Best Foreign Language Film.
Cuarón, one of the greatest and most visually inventive directors working today, has reversed course from films such as Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to make a no-frills, documentary-style, black-and-white film about his childhood in Mexico City, circa 1970. Roma looks like an Italian neorealist work and even sounds like one, though Roma, as it happens, is the name of a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cuarón has said that 90 percent of the film comes straight from his memories, but it’s a curious kind of picture: A memoir in which the person doing the remembering is in the background. Four children feature in the film, but none of them really develops as a character. Instead, Cuarón has taken to wondering what life was like for a beloved household servant, Libo, who in the film is called Cleo.
Roma is very much a critics’ picture, slow to develop and so subtle that key developments may be missed by some viewers (especially the TV audience that can view it on Netflix, December 14, the same day it hits theaters). It doesn’t really cohere until well into the second hour, when chaos threatens to overtake an upper-class family run by two women: matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and a live-in nanny/housekeeper named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Sofia’s husband, a doctor named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is home so seldom that his mere arrival is a major event that Cuarón films with hilarious reverence: Without even putting down his cigarette, the doctor expertly crams his tank-sized Galaxy into a tiny garage with only inches to spare on either side. Antonio seems to be away for conferences a lot, but as we learn from overheard snippets of conversation, he is actually leaving the family for another woman. And is still working at the hospital right here in Mexico City.
While Sofia is fretting, it’s Cleo who actually does all the work, from cleaning up the kids’ snacks while they watch TV to gently awakening them in the morning. It’s not clear what the mom actually does for the family except occasionally take the car out for a disastrous drive. But she at least is kind, as she demonstrates when she supports Cleo in her pregnancy. Cleo’s and Sofia’s stories start to run in parallel: Both of them get abandoned by their men at the same time.
And here the most salient of several themes theme clicks into place, the one that is going to most deeply impress Oscar voters: These women (and to a lesser extent the kids) are victims of perfidious, violent, toxic masculinity. There’s an absolute crusher of a moment, late in the film, when Antonio, in the hospital, spots Cleo as she’s in labor and hurries over to offer her some words of encouragement. It’s unfortunate, he adds, that her (female) doctor won’t let him be present in the delivery room. Actually, the other doctor notes, he’s quite welcome there. Oh, no, he replies. Can’t make it. He has an appointment to get to. And he is merely the second-most contemptible man in the story.
There’s more going on in the film than a tribute to the resilience of women, though. Implicitly it rebukes the egocentrism of even great creative minds. A notable feature of straight male artists is that they hardly ever take much interest in what the world might look like from a woman’s point of view, and Cuarón has reached an appreciation that (sometimes) comes with middle age that one’s own experience isn’t all that counts. Any number of filmmakers have taken a cinematic trip back to explore their childhoods, but few have asked, “Never mind me, how did everything look from the viewpoint of someone I took for granted?” A true artist reaches out beyond his own frame of reference, considers that (for example) a near-death experience for him might be equally the story of the selflessness and heroism of another person.
Yet an underappreciated aspect of the film is how it undercuts facile notions about the supposed horror of inequality: Cleo (a person of color) harbors no economic resentment toward the wealthy (white) family that employs her and is happy in her work. Outside the comfortable home, class-based political tempests roil, but from Cleo’s point of view it’s all mysterious and scary. Cuarón doesn’t even bother to sort out the issues at stake, much less urge us passionately to take a side. Juxtaposed against the dramas that go on in every household, politics looks abstract, distant, even a bit pointless, and based in strange masculine feuds. “Now more than ever, we need to hear this message,” cry the critics each time another stridently left-wing movie comes along. Roma is a film that relegates politics to its proper place. Cuarón’s women understand that what matters most is what happens in your family, not this week’s march in the streets. It’s a useful insight, maybe now more than ever.