I didn’t hear anything about Roma until I heard everything about it. A foreign film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma has been showered with praise by critics and received numerous awards, as well as several 2019 Academy Award nominations. As soon as Netflix acquired the rights and began distributing it, word of mouth began to spread. Roma was, in fact, the first film in over a year to be recommended to me, and not the other way around.
At first glance, Roma appears to be your garden-variety drama. Intelligent acting and social consciousness occupy the whole picture, but this is present in most Oscar-bait films. I was enjoying watching Roma but noticed nothing that warranted such high praise. How wrong I was.
The key to understanding Roma is to comprehend the history of Mexico during the 1970’s. Marked by political turmoil between an authoritarian government and leftist student protesters, the film depicts the infamous Corpus Christi massacre, where over one hundred people were killed.
The film rightfully centers around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a middle-class family in Mexico City, who embodies the experience of someone from that time period. Cleo is a likable, relatable character, and plays a tragically passive role in life. She’s thrust into bad situation after bad situation without a proper way of coping.
This all culminates in one of the more disturbing scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, the hospital. After a pregnant Cleo is rushed to the emergency room, we bear witness to an appalling and inhumane turn of events. The scene opens with a wide angle shot of an overcrowded waiting room, where hundreds of individuals await treatment. This part stuck with me, as the shot was composited in such a way that played to my fear of hospitals. It actually gave me anxiety just viewing the overcrowded conditions.
From here, we see Cleo taken immediately by the doctors, and we know something isn’t quite right. Tension has already been mounting as her water broke several hours prior, and at this point we fear the worst for Cleo. I won’t spoil what happens next for those who haven’t seen it, but I warn you for what follows. It’s gritty, blatant, and offensive to the eye, yet I found it all too difficult (and important) to look away.
Regarding another aspect of Roma, I came to respect the minimalist cinematography. The cleverness in the filmmaking and camerawork is often subtle, and therefore can go unnoticed if the viewer isn’t aware of such deliberate actions. The camera is always slow moving, often panning back and forth as the scene plays out. In considerably emotional or visually important scenes it will be placed in a far corner, in order to let the viewer soak in everything happening.
Roma paints an ugly picture of 1970’s Mexico, ridden with poverty, violence, and political tension. Yet, it gives off glimmers of hope for those living in what seems to be unfortunate and unbearable circumstances. Cleo has survived and conquered great adversity, and throughout the film she becomes a heroic, inspiring character prepared to deal with whatever life throws at her. For this reason, I was left with a bitter sweet feeling at the film’s conclusion. A feeling that gave me empathy for those in situations like Cleo, and the hope that a better life awaits them in the future.
The Verdict: A-