[Minor spoilers for ROMA ahead…]
I finally caught up with Alfonso Cuarón’s much-lauded NETFLIX drama, ROMA, which has been getting so much attention lately. I can understand why. It is a truly beautiful film: sweeping, and dramatic, epic and personal – a really lovely piece.
Set in Mexico City in the early 1970s, ROMA is the tale of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid of Mixteco Mesoamerican heritage working for an upper-middle-class family: tidying their house, looking after their children, picking up the shit their dog leaves in their driveway. Very slowly, (things tend to happen slowly in ROMA – that is until they don’t), we watch as Cleo’s life starts to fall apart due to an unwanted pregnancy.
The action is impeccably understated, with a quiet, warm domesticity punctuated by sudden eruptions of historic violence – for example, Cleo’s water breaks during a student demonstration that is violently suppressed by government shock troops (the real-life Corpus Christi massacre of 10th June, 1971). This, and other large-scale scenes like it (particularly one in a paramilitary training camp) are filmed with verve and panache, and in a style redolent of classic Hollywood that – despite the modern CGI bringing larger but less tangible thrills to our screens – still has the ability to astonish.
My one small quibble, however, is that at its heart, ROMA is a little conservative – from both a psychological perspective, and a political one. Cuarón’s portrait of Cleo is based upon the woman who looked after him when he was young, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, and while Aparicio’s performance in the role is powerful and nuanced, it is notable that the film never really manages to get fully inside its protagonist. Cuarón’s portrait of Cleo is loving, but almost tooreverential: it lacks conflict, it lacks struggle. Cleo is a little like a martyr on a cross: she can be looked up to and admired, but she is never afforded anything so real as human frailty.
It is also a little troubling that at the resolution of the film, Cleo seems to find peace by returning to her social position as a household servant. In Cuarón’s perception, the political dangers of the system that is wrecking Cleo’s indigenous culture and destroying the country at large are things that come from the outside – it is violence on the streets, it is thugs parading on training grounds. Inside the home is a place of safety, and the film doesn’t really interrogate the domestic class system that – despite her clear sense of love for the family she works for – separates Cleo from her employers, that allows them to continue sitting in idleness, while she picks up dog-dirt from their driveway.