Roma takes place at a very specific time and place in (possibly) director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood, but the spotlight isn’t on a child. It’s on the family’s nanny, who observes the disintegration and the eventual metamorphosis of an upper middle-class family, while going through some irreversible experiences of her own.
The year is 1970, and though Mexico City resembles a picture postcard, things aren’t quite as cheerful beneath the surface. This was the year when the apparent peaceful democracy was challenged by widespread student protests. But how do six-year-olds know about the social-politics of the era? This why Cuaron’s choice of protagonist is most interesting. The kids’ nanny is not only the omnipresent eyes and ears of the family, but she’s also a bridge to the country’s other social classes, something the family members seem completely unflustered by.
The children of the family wake up to their nanny humming sweet nothings into their ear. This is an intimate portrait of the people who raised Cuaron, and no matter how well-rounded or fractured the portrait turns out to be, the six-year-old Cuaron’s affection remains palpable throughout the film.
Cleo, the nanny, looks after the needs of a suburban family headed by Sofia, in the shadow of the generally-absent Antonio. Even as Cleo goes through the daily chores of the house, she also helps raise the children, like a second mother. One moment she’s hanging clothes on the terrace, in the next she’s pretending to be dead besides the youngest kid ‘shot’ by his elder brother’s toy gun. Privy to a transition both in the family and in the country, she too goes through an emotional roller coaster of her own.
While the child playing the director on camera gives us a glimpse into the innocence of life within the walls of the family home, the real-life grown-up version of him manages to draw parallels between the domestic upheavals with everyday, mundane errands. For instance Cuaron exquisitely shoots the way the patriarch of the house exercises overt caution, while parking his Mercedes in the narrow driveway. It’s also how much care he takes while keeping up the appearances of a ‘happy marriage’. Slowly, as things change back home, the parking becomes more and more reckless.
The film is filled with symbolism. Be it the constant dog poo in the driveway to show the domestic state of affairs. Or repeatedly showing an airplane in the background, perhaps to show how time flies and yet, some things never change.
There’s little doubt that Roma is a masterclass by a director at the height of his powers. And yet, there are times when Roma risks feeling like an art project submerged in its own profoundness.
Films like this often walk a tight rope, because any beautifully composed frame is thought to be saying more than it actually is. But where the director juxtaposes a public massacre with an unforeseen death, he also manages to sneak in a tribute to Gregory Peck’s Marooned (1969), a film that he cited as inspiration for his 2013 film, Gravity. Does the technique overstate itself in a few scenes? Perhaps. But it’s hard to deny that Cuaron’s film is a staggering achievement.
With a cast of unprofessional actors telling a story in the director’s native tongue, as the visuals play out in black & white, Roma is the work of a secure individual simply trying to make sense of his past using today’s pragmatism.