A great movie is never just about its story. It’s about how that story is told, and particularly how it’s seen by the audience.
The best filmmakers know how to subtly guide our gaze toward what matters and hold it there, beckoning us to see what we might otherwise miss. In other words, great movies make us pay attention in a way that we often fail to do in our everyday lives.
That’s what Alfonso Cuarón does in Roma, and it’s with a mission. The film is personal for the director, who modeled its main character, Cleo, on a woman who worked for his family and raised him. The love for her that he brings to the screen, and the care and respect he pays her as the center of the film, is unmissable.
And in making Roma so visually rich and compelling, Cuarón is asking us to pay her the same respect — to slow our hearts, set aside expectations, and let the film speak for itself. Roma is a feast, crafted for those who are willing to pull up a chair and take part on the feast’s own terms.
In many ways, Roma is a natural evolution of Cuarón’s body of work
Cuarón’s career is diverse and celebrated; after his 1991 debut, the Mexican film Sólo con Tu Pareja, he quickly migrated to movies that proved to have broad audience and critical appeal: A Little Princess (1995), Great Expectations (1998), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, widely considered the best of the Harry Potter adaptations), Children of Men (2006), and Gravity (2013). He’s worked on documentary and TV projects as well, and has been showered with awards, including two Oscars and four more nominations.
In all his films, Cuarón exhibits a careful attention not just to the narrative aspects of his storytelling but to how that storytelling is shaped by what the camera sees. Often, he works with legendary Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (the two have known each other since they were teenagers), and the results are frequently unforgettable. Think of the heightened magical realism of A Little Princess, the extraordinary long takes in the painfully relevant Children of Men, or the weightless vertigo feeling of watching Gravity.
Roma feels both like the culmination of his career to date and something quite different. That is in part because, though Lubezki and Cuarón had planned to collaborate once again, scheduling problems led Lubezki to encourage his friend to not just write and direct the film but serve as its cinematographer as well.
The results are stunning. Shot in black and white and set around 1971, Roma — named for the Mexico City neighborhood in which Cuarón was raised — begins with a long, unmoving shot from above. The camera locks on a stone driveway as water is splashed across it, then a broom is pushed back and forth, washing the stones. The opening credits appear superimposed on this background, and it doesn’t change till they’re finished rolling.
Soon we find out the broom is pushed by Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who works for a well-off doctor (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her mother Teresa (Verónica García), and their four young children in Mexico City. Cleo lives in a room above the garage with Adela (Nancy García García), the family’s other domestic employee. The doctor is about to go on a work trip, and Sofia seems worried about whether he even intends to return. The children are rambunctious and full of questions, and the house bustles with life from dawn, when Cleo awakens the children, until dusk, when she turns off the last few lights.
Roma is about daily life against a backdrop of social unrest, and the women who keep it all together
Every bit of the house and the world around it is rendered in exquisite detail, and quietly; there’s no soundtrack to Roma, but the impeccable sound design puts you right into every scene. Often, Cuarón positions the camera in the center of a room and lets it rotate slowly, tracking with Cleo as she moves about the house, which is bursting with books and art and furniture and decorations that sketch out the life of the family.
It is not, strictly speaking, Cleo’s world — the divide between her roots in a poor village miles away and the family’s comfortable life are always starkly present. Even the way the characters talk underlines this fact; with the family, Cleo and Adela speak Spanish, but between themselves, they speak an indigenous dialect of Mixteca, from their home village. (The switches between the two are delineated in the onscreen captions for English speakers.)
But the subject of the movie isn’t the class contrast alone. Instead, it’s the way the domestic and the social collide, the way individuals’ lives play out in quotidian ways against the backdrop of much bigger happenings.
Those happenings include social unrest, whispered conversations about land grabs, fires mysteriously appearing on a wealthy hacienda at Christmas, and the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, when a shock group trained by the government attacked student demonstrators.
It would reveal too much about the story of Roma to describe how those events become part of Cleo’s world, but the film keeps her in the foreground even when Cuarón aims to show us what’s going on in the world outside the family’s home. (The mind boggles at the idea of staging these scenes, and how many extras were required.) The objects that fill her field of view often fill the screen too: a piece of broken pottery, a candle on the floor, the children’s toys scattered on the floor, the water she scrubs across the stones.
With Cleo at its center, Roma’s story takes on a meditative tone. Aparicio had never acted before this film, but she had worked as a domestic employee, as had her mother and other female relatives. That personal history is something she’s talked about in interviews,explaining that she drew on her lived experience when portraying Cleo’s life.
Often, Aparicio and Roma’s other cast members wouldn’t receive scripts from Cuarón until a day or so ahead of shooting, so they were discovering their characters in real time, and it shows in the authenticity of their emotions. If you’re not paying attention, Cleo could appear passive. But there is plenty happening below the surface, most often revealed by Aparicio’s expressive eyes.
Roma is at times quite funny, always in a way that builds out its world more richly (a recurring gag with a car that’s barely able to get into the driveway turns into something more substantial later in the film). But it’s also a serious drama with aching scenes of loss, and one that places women at the center of the world, amid men who are often so carried away by passion or ego that they are essentially useless, or worse.
And given how closely Cuarón modeled Roma on his memories, the film thus serves as a testament to the women who raised him and populated his world. While all these frightening things were going on in the larger country around them, they kept on, choosing to rebuild after tragedies, raising children, sustaining a sense of wonder.
One of the best things a movie can do is force us to settle down, quiet ourselves, and live inside someone else’s experience for a while. And Roma is a shining example of a film that succeeds in that endeavor, focusing on the primary element that sets cinema apart from other artistic mediums: It is visually immersive and richly textured both in its visuals and its sound.
That’s why, even though Roma was produced by Netflix and will begin streaming on the platform just three weeks after its theatrical release, the film is worth seeing in a movie theater if it’s playing near you. There’s something particularly absorbing about the seemingly endless detail layered into the film — and giving it as much attention as you can respects not just the art form but the people at its heart, and the love Cuarón bears for them too.
Roma opens in select theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico on November 21 and will gradually roll out in the US and abroad in the weeks following. It also premieres on Netflix on December 14.