In “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón endeavors to render the intimacy and introspection of the memoir in three dimensions. The results are as stunning and moving as they are profoundly sad.
Cuarón selects a thoughtful angle from which to approach his personal history, focusing the camera on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio in a breakout debut performance), the fictive counterpart of Lido, his family’s housekeeper who played a significant role in his upbringing in late 20th-century Mexico City. And when I say “focus,” I mean the unwavering, intense kind that a person devotes to someone they love. This love guides the camerawork in compounding sequences as Cuarón slowly scans a site, be it the house Cleo takes care of, or the city block in which it’s nestled. The camera may very well visit other characters and objects, but once it stops, we wait with bated breath for a return. Every time, that awaited gravitational figure is Cleo.
In this respect and several others, Cuarón’s visual memoir doubles as a love letter to Lido, he even signs it “For Lido,” in the closing scene. This love letter hardly ever errs, crossing the divides of gender-based, socioeconomic and other privileges with grace and respect. Cuarón navigates these tensions adeptly, juxtaposing scenes that emphasize Cleo’s beloved status in the eyes of her employer’s children with reality-checks maintaining the family is not immune to seeing Cleo as their servant. In one scene, we are floored by breathtaking love as Cleo’s employer Ms. Sofia (played by Marina de Tavira, “Efectos Secundarios”) and her youngest child take turns holding Cleo as she cries for fear of an unexpected pregnancy. In the next scene, however, when her employer takes her to the family’s doctor to test for pregnancy, we watch Ms. Sofia speak for and infantilize Cleo — we sigh, and we ache for Cleo.
In Cuarón’s deep, matchless regard for his characters lies the distinct mode of realism that permeates “Roma.” With a keen eye for both the staggering tragedies that sideswipe us and the subtle ironies of life that mock us, Cuarón does not waste any time in fruitless pursuit of their source or rationalization for their inevitable occurrence. Instead, he pays homage to the women expected to suffer all of these in silence by telling of Ms. Sofia’s anguish and even more extensively of Cleo’s. Each abandoned by the men who were supposed to love and support them in large and small ways, these sufferings are palpable, at once resonant and incomprehensible.
And oh yes, “Roma” is sad. But its sadness is not the senseless, manipulative kind, buttressed by the logic that, on the one hand, you earn your audience’s sympathies by eliciting their tears, and, on the other hand, that you can justify this approach to sadness by calling it realism. “Roma” instead is distinguished by a fresh realism, for Cuarón refuses to narrate tragedy aimlessly or callously in a way that would justify drowning a character just to make a more convincing sea. Instead, he invests foremost and most deeply in his characters, romanticizing neither their suffering nor their triumphs. The chief return on this cumbersome but worthwhile investment in a more authentic realism is a world in which extraordinary love appears just as possible as extraordinary evil, a world in which we each have the choice to act in the name of either.
That might explain one of Cuarón’s visual motifs: airplanes. In the opening scene, one streaks across a patch of sky reflected in Cleo’s soapy water while she scrubs the family’s driveway; another airplane completes a parallel route in the closing scene, the camera aimed upwards this time, after having tracked Cleo laboring up a flight of stairs. As if to say, why do you still crane your neck? Why do you look to the sky for your heroes? There’s a hero, a saint, a miracle, right by your side. She sings to you softly in the morning to ensure you get to school on time. She calls you by your name. She doesn’t walk on water, but she would drown before she’d let you go under. Whether biological or surrogate, she’s your mother, and she loves you.
Could you imagine anything more extraordinary than that?