Sunday, December 16, 2018



1970, Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a live-in house help in an affluent family with four children in Mexico City’s neighborhood of Roma. Aside from taking care of household chores, she and another maid, also of indigenous origin, are in charge of being the kids’ nannies 24/7 as well. The matriarch, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is about to separate with her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), whose infidelity she conceals from the children by making up excuses of him attending conferences in Canada. When Cleo is knocked up by her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), he disappears and makes it clear that he does not want any responsibility for the unborn child. Preoccupied with her situation, she decides to tell her boss about her dilemma, which couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time given the family’s problems as well as brewing political unrest in the streets of the capital.

Black and white does not always work, but for Roma it does wonders, lending credence to the 1970’s setting without coming across as gimmicky. The cinematography makes it appear as though you were watching a documentary, a glimpse at domestic life from a bygone era in a country’s recent past, the social effects of which are still prevalent up to this day. While the movie serves more as a tribute to the unsung heroes working in the background of modern day households, it does touch on various themes that serve as a good introduction to contemporary Mexican society, from racial stratification to domestic politics.

Even then, it’s not an in your face argumentative narrative that vilifies certain characters in favor of others. Instead, Cuarón just shows you what his childhood looked like in that decade. You are not forced to take sides because there simply is no side to take. What the film accomplishes is it serves as some sort of springboard for you to dive into various themes that might be of interest to you, may it be social inequality grounded on racial lines or political turmoil in Latin America in the past decades. In effect, it allows you to observe, and then perhaps do further research to get to know the country better.

What is perhaps universal for some cultures is the idea of having a nanny. While unimaginable in more egalitarian societies, Roma presents the idea in the context of Mexican society. If you are part of a society that does not condone such practice, then this movie will be an eye-opener as to the dynamics formed within the family with the involvement of a live-in maid. Otherwise, you will also learn a lot in terms of the unique factors involved and how the practice differs in cultures where having house help is not frowned upon.

The emotional highlight is definitely that scene on the poster. As the nanny frantically wades through the waves to save the two siblings from drowning, the mother and her two other children rush towards them as they are washed ashore. It ends up with a teary-eyed group hug as Cleo breaks down and bemoans the unfortunate fate of her stillborn child, with the mommy and her brood reassuring her that she will always be a part of the family. The scene could have played out with more hysterics and intensity, yet the subdued acting blends quite well with the faint natural lighting of the sun behind them as well as the soundtrack of the waves slapping the sea. Poignant, to say the least.

Acting wise, Aparicio gives a decent performance for a newcomer, but seemingly not the type of film debut vehicle that one would really shower with accolades. If anything, de Tavira does a better job with her nuanced portrayal despite her relatively less screen time. Perhaps this is what makes the acting nominations feel contrived. From a historical standpoint, it jives well with the zeitgeist and looks good on paper as far as the call for diversity in Hollywood is concerned, which is all we should really care about as part of a global audience. It might seem weird, though, for the actors themselves, what with that thought at the back of their minds, wondering if these are mere token nominations for a sociopolitical agenda.

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