The avenues of Mexico City’s affluent Colonia Roma district provide the mise en scène for Alfonso Cuarón’s touching, sentimental, yet strangely muffled film, most of which is set in an upper middle-class property in the early 1970s. A mind-boggling expanse of edifices, this enormous metropolis, with its tallest structures shrouded in smog, is an extraordinary sight. Arriving by plane in the darkness of early morning, the lights extend further than the eye can see, its greater area home to 21 million people. In certain districts, high walls, security cameras, and occasionally barbed wire enclose luxurious estates belonging to the city’s wealthiest inhabitants, who employ an array of domestic workers, most of whom are disadvantaged women. When first visiting Mexico some years ago, it was unsettling to observe this vast, frequently exploited under-class, many of whom labour for a pittance, and often suffer abuse – sometimes racially motivated. Sadly, being poor, here, is often considered less than human.
Roma promises to be a character study of one of these workers, dedicated by Cuarón to his childhood nanny Liboria Rodríguez. Its subject is Cleo, a general dogsbody played with effortless sensitivity and redoubtable fortitude by debutant actress Yalitza Aparicio. The mundane drudgery of her daily existence – largely spent cleaning floors, tidying rooms, hanging out the washing, and sundry fetching and carrying – is portrayed in a perfunctory manner. Inhabiting a world of privilege yet denied access to the status or comfort it affords, the inhibited form of her life is dictated by the performance of dull, repetitious, yet vital activities sustaining the family with whom she lives. The servitude she endures is portrayed as benign: the family, and particularly the children in whose lives she is a vital and active participant, show genuine affection for her. But the distance generated between the family’s comfortable middle-class existence and the conditions of their labouring help cannot be convincingly bridged, even by later scenes of emotional turmoil careful to depict the family’s concern for Cleo’s well-being. Evidently, she is not, and can never be, one of them. Socially, her value is an extension of theirs: a mere after-effect or consequence of their existence, of their benevolent employ. That she is noticed at all, or is lent any significance whatsoever, depends upon what she can do for others.
The film is expertly shot in black-and-white, its subjects cast in a spectrum of grey, their pallor further muting the everyday proceedings. The affective, immersive cinematography (skilfully handled by Cuarón after his esteemed long-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki pulled out due to scheduling issues), invites us to be witnesses to the dysfunction of marital breakdown. To this extent, the frequent depiction of water – evasive, slippery, engulfing – seems entirely apt. It splashes over a soiled surface; it leaks from a smashed cup; it trickles, dirty, into a drain; it falls in sheets from the sky as hail, madly bouncing up and down upon impact; it breaks upon the floor, signalling the onset of birth; it moves smoothly as waves, striking upon a shoreline. In the opening scene it is masterfully used. Affixed to the floor of the driveway, remotely reflected in a pool of soapy water, the sky appears, and through the distorted rippling emerges a plane, miniscule, travelling overhead. Again and again, the water sloshes soothingly over the surface of the screen, capturing the dissonance between reality and its reflection. The sounds are especially evocative: the sloshing, the rhythmic scrubbing, the gurgling of a nearby drain indicate the time of Cleo’s life, running out, pouring round, descending down.
The central object of her toil – canine fecal matter – is often shown, liberally deposited, on the property driveway, which can barely contain the father’s ridiculously large Ford Galaxy. In one highly amusing and memorable scene, as the family breathlessly wait to welcome him home, the patriarch painstakingly manoeuvres, again and again, to fit the massive vehicle through the tightest of spaces. Finally he triumphs – in the process driving neatly over a pile of dog waste. The (shitty) parking complete, the family happily settle down to watch television. Later, the intoxicated and grief-stricken mother stuffs the offending mound of steel (much to its detriment) into the inadequate space. This task, and the manner of its execution, speaks volumes. The father’s detached concentration nicely contrasts with his wife’s struggle to comprehend the collapse of their marriage.
The student march depicted at the crux of the film – named the Corpus Christi Massacre, or El Halconazo (The Hawk Strike) – resulted, on the 10th June 1971, in more than 100 deaths as part of the Mexican Guerra Sucia or ‘Dirty War’ between the despotic PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) regime and militant left-wing guerrillas composed mainly of disenchanted students who were united for a time under the Marxist-Leninist Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre. After a 40-year period of uninterrupted power marked by the elimination of political dissent, PRI utilised military and police forces in a violent crackdown on the student movement of the late 1960s, resulting notably in the massacres of October 1968 and June 1971. The latter was perpetrated by Los Halcones (The Falcons), a black-op, CIA-trained army group tasked with suppressing demonstrations by force. In Roma, one of their number, Fermín, enters Cleo’s life to unhappy consequence prior to the massacre, but he is reduced in the film to little more than a thuggish caricature of masculine aggression, deliberately unleashed. Assiduously wielding his stick during his cherished martial arts training (even doing so in front of a nonplussed Cleo prior to the act of consummation), he is an expression of misplaced energy and misguided extremity. As such, during the massacre he becomes an efficient implement of power, revealing an ill-concealed, ever-present substratum of political chaos, the consequences of which envelop Cleo.
Presumably, the portrayal of this event, raw and visceral, when juxtaposed with Cleo’s unwanted pregnancy, intends to heighten the mismatch between political reality and her private anguish. Their coincidence produces a striking disjunction (we witness Cleo’s quiet innocence, hitherto untroubled, encountering a set of inscrutable socio-political forces whose sources and significances are concealed from her), but anyone ignorant of the event in question would be left none the wiser as to the context in which it unfolds, or what the characters make of it all. Nothing is discussed, no opinions are aired. To criticise the film for its apparently de-politicised stance even as it makes use of a political event for dramatic effect would be understandable. The emotion it manages to extract out of that event does feel contrived, as though Cleo herself was too light a vessel on which to float weightier issues of national identity, historically derived. Still, if the intention is to display the indiscriminate impact of political events, their ability both to distil and dispel vital emotional energy, to corrupt the illusion of competently managed order, to exhaust the supply of human goodwill, then it works rather well.
Nevertheless, it is striking how little dialogue, expository or otherwise, actually occurs. Most of the cast, especially Antonio, the father, are practically mute. Even Cleo utters barely more than a sentence at a time, and little of it is revelatory. So, who is she? It’s difficult, even impossible, to say for sure. Her inner life is withheld from us. Who Cleo is beyond what she does, and who she is to other people, is unclear. Of course, it can be argued that who one is, is what one does. But Cleo only ever does what she is supposed to do – to do what others suppose she exists to do.
Unfortunately, her inconsequence seems by the end of the film – at least to me – redoubled, re-emphasised. With no apparent political proclivities, let alone education, Cleo is helpless: she lacks control. Her mien crystallises into either dissociated obedience or eager willingness to please. Long-suffering nobility, inscrutable self-sacrifice, innocence disrupted by malign forces – such tropes and themes could, perhaps, be read into the film, but this would credit it with a level of detail and attention it simply lacks. Not a film of ideas, nor truly a study in character, but a piece of nostalgia brought to life on screen, the characters are as a result merely swatches, cut-outs from some larger plenitude. So much so, they are at times merely uninteresting clichés. The father, impassive, goes off gallivanting with another woman. The mother is a caring, fluttering wreck. The grandmother: stolid, unyielding, kind. Linking both employer and employee is the unoriginal theme of male desertion from the family unit: in the first case, due to marital breakdown; in the second, a rejection of it altogether.
In retrospect, this impressive and at times mesmerising cinematic experience remains merely that. In purely aesthetic, stylistic terms, with its extended takes, its scenic panning, its crystalline black-and-white, it cannot be faulted. Otherwise, however, the film is impressionistic, fuzzy, undefined – a film of uncoordinated images. The more politically-minded critic would find its aesthetic features self-indulgent; a film lacking in any meaningful depth, it offers only the pretension to it. Yet it resonates. I can only describe it as evincing the aftertaste of memory; a feeling of displacement, of temporal inertia following the recollection of lost time. With every attempt to recapture it, it recedes ever further into the past. In the moment of nostalgia, there is no forward momentum. Suddenly, the memory itself becomes a thing of the past, each moment of recollection amplifying the feeling of loss. In this sense, it is a film possessed by something ghostly, vaporous: a spectral synchrony of past and present oddly multiplying the distance between them. Like mist rising from the early morning dew, there is a dispersion of energy, an atomisation of meaning. For there is no failed return to the past that is not at once self-compromising, its renewed absence a void needing to be filled.
Ultimately, Cleo’s redemption, or so we are led to think, seems to lie in her ability to carry on carrying on. In the performance of her duties she finds her means of recognition, this being her meagre recompense for a life of toil. Tellingly, in the final scene, she climbs a flight of steps – dutifully clutching a pile of laundry – to the roof. The ascension of Cleo… to scrub some clothes. Redemptive? I wonder. Pointedly, the camera then pans upwards to the sky. As in the opening scene, a distant plane murmurs overhead. Does Cleo, in this return, find self-exculpation in the resumption of her duties? Is there, in the performance of this Sisyphean task, the happiness occasionally found in absurdity? To me, all that can be heard is an echo: the sound of sloshing water, sluicing away a pile of excrement constantly replaced. The water endlessly circles a drain, to no effect. Here, in the incongruity of action and meaning, lies a haunting marriage of the beautiful and the banal.
Alexandre Leskanich  is a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Royal Holloway, University of London. His work can be found at: https://royalholloway.academia.edu/AlexandreLeskanich