The heart of any story is its characters. Their strengths and vulnerabilities should be visible to us so we can connect with them; or we can connect to them via their actions that govern the plot. In a book a writer can elucidate what a character is feeling in any given moment with an innumerable amount of lines detailing emotion and motivation. A film has to convey this expeditiously with proper editing and good acting. Which is why it can be very difficult to adapt a book to film. The filmmaker is forced to condense plot and character development, entrusting the burden of advancing the emotional narrative to the screenwriter, the editor, and the actors. It’s the actors in particular who bear the brunt of this responsibility. Their performance can make or break that emotional narrative and the film.
In Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a nanny and servant for a middle-class family living in 1970 Mexico City. The family consists of mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), their children Toño, Paco, Pepe, and Sofi, and grandma Teresa. She cares for their dog Borras and sees that meals are prepared, clothes are washed, and the rooms are clean. Her friend Adela (Nancy García) is also a servant for them and they both reside in a spare room above the living quarters.
When Sofia anticipates an impending tragedy for her family, Cleo must help keep Sofia’s home from falling apart. All while dealing with a personal issue of her own. The chaos within this family is mirrored by the growing unrest of the students and populace living in Mexico City. As tensions spread throughout the streets, the problems that have been ignored by everyone will soon have to be confronted. Only time will tell who has the courage and resolve to see it through.
I really enjoyed the intimacy of this film. It’s a simple story with a personal, down-to-earth atmosphere. The camera work is professional and cinematic, but the composition of the scenes doesn’t betray the sincerity of the characters. It’s one of the many elements of this movie that kept me invested.
Cleo is not a person of many words, but she does wear her heart on her sleeve. She is full of compassion for the people she cares for. In fact she is treated as a member of the family on some occasions. The children adore her. I mentioned previously about how actors are responsible for conveying the emotional narrative of their character; and must often do so without the help of dialogue or exposition. Yalitza Aparicio pulls this off brilliantly, giving us a range of emotions beneath the surface as she traverses the perilous decisions of her life. She projects strength, vulnerability, courage, and innocence with ease. It’s hard to believe this is her first acting experience.
Roma is an immersive journey that I was prepared to go on and yet I still was not prepared for how emotionally powerful this film is. The story is again simple, but filled with complex characters. The cinematography had me at the opening credits. A world of visual poetry that is as beautiful as it is terrifying. The sounds of the city are highlighted with great attention to detail. None of this would have been possible without Alfonso’s passion and dedication to the recreation of a moment in Mexican history.
Alfonso Cuaron spent years making a variety of films, acquiring accolades and respect from the film community in the process. As a result this has allowed him to use the money and resources at his disposal to depict Mexico City in 1970 with precise accuracy. Locations of his story are filmed in the actual locations they take place. Furniture and other items from his family home are used in the movie’s house. Photographs from family albums were used to construct scenes and backgrounds.
You could make the case that all of this was unnecessary and it all could have been fabricated on a sound stage, but any filmmaker will tell you that shooting on location and using items from an actual time period inspires the actors and the audience. I’m sure people from that place and time that are still alive appreciate all his effort for many reasons. As do I.
One of the unlikely characters that grabbed my attention in this movie is the driveway of the family’s home. It is an inanimate object, but it has personality. It is the setting for many moments and can incite joy, frustration, or catharsis in the family. Sometimes I saw that driveway as a small movie within this movie.
Roma is a love letter to Mexico, warts and all. It’s in black and white, but the sights and sounds are so vibrant and electric that it colors your emotions. Mexico really does reflect this family. Much like any family, Mexico’s problems, good or bad, are part of what makes it special. You can never be sure what the outcome will be, but whatever it is you are all in it together. Yalitza Aparicio is remarkable as well as Marina de Tavira and Nancy García.
The entire cast felt very authentic and genuine, which aided in the immersive experience. I recommend this film be seen in theaters so you can see what Alfonso Cuaron was able to achieve and to put yourself in a world you may have only a cursory knowledge of. A world full of strong individuals, diverse cultures and communities, and familiar customs. Because of how it refuses to translate its story to a mainstream audience,
Roma may not connect with you. Still I believe if you allow yourself the patience and focus, you will discover what a charming film this really is.
Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family and their nanny in Mexico City during the early 1970s.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writer: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy Garcia, Veronica Garcia, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
Runtime: 2 Hour, 15 Minutes