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In the opening beats of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a holy moment: a sudden rush of water washes over an ombre grid of grey tiles; in the reflection we can see a skylight overhead; framed by that skylight, a plane in miniature crosses a patch of soapy shine. It is a remarkable introduction to a work of spectral beauty, one which integrates the divine with the visceral, the elemental with the technological, and the remembered with real. Roma made for a stand-out centerpiece to the 56th New York Film Festival, as well as a striking addition to Cuarón’s already distinguished body of work. The film marks the first time that one of the so-called “Three Amigos” (Iñárritu, Cuarón, del Toro) has backed away from the resources and promises of an enraptured Hollywood to turn his lens back to Mexico, and for Cuarón, this calculated risk has more than paid off in the festival circuit.

Roma tells the story of an upper-class family, loosely based on Cuarón’s own, facing domestic upheaval against the backdrop of early-1970s Mexico City. The protagonist is one of their maids, Cleo (a shattering debut by Yalitza Aparicio), who bears largely silent witness to the revolutionary momentum of an unsteady window into Mexican history. After the family’s enigmatic patriarch departs on a business trip, never to return, the household returns to the sphere of feminine control. While Cleo works with the scattered and volatile mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to preserve normality, earthquakes collapse incubators in the NICU, forest fires encroach onto scenes of bourgeois holiday, and riots in the street fatally disrupt shopping errands. Floating through a neo-realist landscape of half-grasped memory, Cleo finds love with an eccentric and flighty martial arts practitioner, experiences devastating loss, and finds a solidity within herself to endure and protect the tenderness so integral to her being. Throughout the narrative, Cuarón carefully constructs immersive, layered sonic environments and frames his scenes in long takes which cooperatively tease out the magical and improbable within the real.  

While the film is an emotional tour-de-force, Roma is more interested in displays of love across social boundaries than it is in the exchanges of power embedded in these relationships.  Cuarón is attune to the complex feelings of affiliation and resentment which arise between members of affluent families and their hired help, and he leans into the resilience of these unconventional structures of intimacy. The film’s finale is gutting; however, the scene represents one of many moments wherein narrative tension is relieved by a reassurance of Cleo’s capacity for sacrifice and love for her employer’s children. Cuarón’s decision to continuously stress her generosity and integration within the family recalls a host of troubling media tropes which have historically defined representations of the serving class and draws into sharper focus some of the social issues which he neglects to address. We have begun to see other Latin American directors grapple with class, mestizo identity, and the aftershocks of colonization; Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, for example, renders analogous domestic scenes in a visual vocabulary of stagnation and latent violence. Roma in some ways represents a missed opportunity to engage with shifting power dynamics in the domestic realm during a moment of major societal upheaval.           

Nevertheless, there is enormous power in Cuarón’s decision to frame an epic-scale narrative about Mexico in transition around an indigenous woman; one who speaks in her native mixteca as well as Spanish, who enacts a coveted cinematic role as central voyeur, who brings the viewer into each of many worlds in collision. The prioritization of stories like hers, which have been largely lost in the crush of history, is a valuable project, and despite the film’s weaknesses, Cuarón serves her narrative with elegance and dignity. Roma delivers on the hype.