Roma written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Esperanto Films, Participant Media, Netflix, R, 135 min)
Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Verónica García, and Jorge Antonio Guerrero.
The World Spins Madly On
In consideration of the deterministic nature of reality, we often note that the world spins madly on. In the face of intense despair and grief. In the moments of bliss and joy. Beneath it all, the world continues its motion, arcing through space consistently plummeting toward the sun in a gravitational pull fast enough to slingshot by year after year.
But, from our lowly vantage, the world doesn’t appear to spin, definitely not madly on. It doesn’t feel like a slingshot dancing with the gravitational pull of the sun. We feel rooted. Consistent. Placed.
That feeling, however, doesn’t mean we don’t have signals of a machine moving, uncaring in the face of our personal plights. Consider the airplane. It graces the sky ubiquitously. Always to a location come hell or weather advisory.
The House as Mise En Place
But still, we aim to put everything in its place. For families of certain affluence around the world, part of the placement is the help, the workers of a lower class hired to clean and care for the family. In Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Roma, the housekeeper becomes a symbol of canonization. A person once poor know holding the keys to the kingdom.
Roma is admittedly autobiographical. It highlights a pivotal time for a well-to-do family in Mexico City, much like Cuarón’s family.
The film focuses on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family housekeeper, but her background and her vision for the future are non-existent. Instead, the film concentrates on a slim portrait of a family in turmoil while Cleo goes about her chores. In case you needed appropriate emphasis, the film begins with chores and it ends with chores.
In the middle, when Cleo isn’t performing her tasks, she spends time with her boyfriend. This relationship causes discord when Cleo becomes unexpectedly pregnant.
At the same time, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), navigates her own crises, when the family patriarch “goes to Quebec” to study medicine. But, as the viewer quickly discovers, this description is a cover for a father looking to depart the family system.
What follows is a family and that family’s housekeeper doing their best to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense. And yet, while their world is spinning, the world around them keeps moving on. Movies get distributed to the local cinema and airplanes travel to respective ports of entry.
Questions About Housekeeping as a Saintly Act
All things considered, the story itself doesn’t quite work. Beneath what we see, it feels as if Cuarón wants to make the statement that housekeeping is a noble act, that it is an avenue out of poverty, and it is worthy of sainthood. The world needs housekeepers after all. But, watching the film, I kept thinking about a story told often between workplace theologians making the case for the dignity of work.
A CEO of a cleaning company was visiting a hospital with which the company is contracted to do work. Meeting a janitor who had a bright smile on her face, the CEO asked why she was so happy. Her response? She’s saving lives.
In other words, the janitor found meaning in her work because she knew that keeping the hospital clean would help the health of this at-risk customer base. She isn’t cleaning toilets; she’s saving lives.
Even though I always thought it was interesting that she was able to find a deeper purpose in her work, she’s still cleaning toilets!
This view of dignity or sanctity in work makes a lot of sense when you’re in a position of power. Someone needs to clean the toilet so he or she better find purpose in it! But does the person cleaning toilets really want to clean toilets? Here, Roma sides with the as-is structures of the world. Cleo’s purpose is housekeeping and she’s a saint for doing it. For those looking at a revolutionary approach to labor dynamics, Roma isn’t it.
The Value of Aesthetics
What Roma is, however, is a visually stunning work of art. Problematic social commentary aside, Cuarón offers the viewer a sampling of aesthetic splendor. From the opening shot, Cuarón maps his motif. The soiled ground only set in relief to the heavens above when water washes the shit away. It’s absolutely stunning and Roma is worth watching for that alone.
But, Cuarón continues playing with the black-and-white palette and framing to provide stark contrast throughout. Every shot is meticulous, like the scene where the father fusses over every detail and angle as he parks his muscle car.
At every visual turn, Cuarón wants to illustrate the distance between heaven and earth, and water runs as the current between each, like a baptism of the soul. The world might turn madly on, but our lives matter even in the tedious moments. Arguments aside on the validity of settling for a specific social structure, Roma shows filmmaking mastery at every turn.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5