Roma is Alfonso Cuaron’s return to roots. Netflix, the streaming giant, has pulled out all stops to promote and position it as a mainstream Oscar contender. However, as the Golden Globes indicate, this non-English language film from a streaming giant might remain a foreign language nominee. At the Golden Globes, it won two top awards. Cuaron also won over viewers with his honest acceptance speech for his win in the Best Director category. Recognizing Roma as a nominee in technical and important popular categories will signal to Hollywood studios that a streaming company, Netflix, is as significant. So the jury is out on that.
Beyond workings of showbiz’s power brokers, Roma is an important film. It’s a visual masterpiece and a pure, honest representation of a simple, humane story. But above everything else, Cuaron’s film is significant in the subtexts that it carries so powerfully.
Cuaron returned to his home in Mexico to tell a heartfelt story from his childhood. A household help, Libo, brought him up and played an integral role during his childhood. He waited patiently to translate his vision convincingly, backed by a good producer. The filmmaker retraces undercurrents of complexity, a volatile political climate of the Mexico of 1970-71 and key roles that loving women play shaping his early life. Roma is a leafy suburb in Mexico City, with airy, big homes, uniform rooftops cluttered with drying laundry and big metal gates. Roma opens with a shot of a tile being wiped cleaned with a mop as a shadow of an airplane flying overhead reflects on it. Cleo, the household help that takes care of this bustling household with many kids and overflowing bookshelves, does everything around the home. She has a colleague, a fellow village woman. But no one acknowledges it. The family takes it for granted that she is there to serve. Cleo picks up the kids from school, puts them to bed, serves them lunches and serves after supper teas to the family’s master, while enjoying popular sitcoms with them. The family’s approach is not exploitative. It’s just a natural assumption that Cleo is there to serve, to help. When she runs in trouble, her employer helps her without questions asked. Dealing with abandonment from her husband, her traumatized employer tries to cheer her up, both women from completely different backgrounds coping with their personal grief.
Cleo’s life represents the basic existential challenge of the under privileged and financially marginalized in Mexico. Even as political upheaval becomes commonplace, and villagers rebel against state sponsored land grabbing, staff in upwardly mobile Mexican homes make a living without questions asked. They are apolitical, accept a place of service and feel genuine affection for those that they work for.
Uncompromising and visually enriched, Cuaron has shot Roma in high definition black and white panoramic format; he fills every frame with the hustle bustle of a populated, busy and modernizing country. Cleo’s life is crowded and her personal space always limited. This evident contradiction- that places her in the midst of a tableau - highlights the film’s most important message, about those that are visibly invisible; namely, the immigrant. He also uses a local Mexican dialect Mixteca to highlight the contrast between urban and rural comprehension of everyday life.
Roma is a work of art in its ability to say so much without saying anything at all. Cuaron is an import to the American film industry. He is an immigrant, a prized one, whose skill set enhances American life. Thousands like him are not welcome. Speaking the same dialects and languages, as a few privileged Mexicans or South Americans like him, these are now literally suffering at the US border. There is no reasonable or sustainable solution on the table between the governments of both nations. Immigrants mark almost all aspects of everyday life in cities and towns across the USA and Europe. Dry cleaning stores, corner shops, grocers, cleaners, janitors, factory workers, taxi drivers- immigrants run essential and menial tasks and businesses. Yet for those amongst them that are illegal, there are neither rights nor any recognition of their economic contribution.
Roma doesn’t get into this contemporary problem or the larger debate. What Cuaron focuses on is Mexico’s political reality from the past, the beginning of chaos. Cleo also represents the faceless, unrecognized masses that labor away in every modern city, town and nation. A film that goes back to the basics deconstructs life’s seemingly simple but impossible problems; Roma is a masterpiece in introspection and realization.
In his acceptance speech, Cuaron referred to how cinema “tears down walls and builds bridges” amongst cultures. It starts conversations. Will Roma pull in enough chatter and awareness to go mainstream at the Oscars? In hindsight, that is not as relevant as is the fact that thanks to streaming, this Spanish and Mixteca language film which shows so much that is common among experiences across countries and people has been watched by countless people around the world.