Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's latest movie since Gravity (2013), is a black and white drama about Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a nanny/maid for a family of four children, mom, dad, and a few pets. Her day-to-day life involves waking at dawn to cook, clean, and care for the family, including watching the children while simultaneously doing her chores, finishing late at night after tucking the kids into bed. Cleo is good at her job, displaying attentiveness, endless patience, and genuine love towards her young charges.
Cleo is a compelling character who is hard to read—she falls into the stereotype of a silent, blank, attentive member of the waitstaff. She is often talked over or bossed around. Aparicio does her absolute best to convey layered emotions despite a lack of dialogue for her character.
For a main character, Cleo is frustratingly silent, rarely speaking or conveying her emotions; the audience is expected to fill in the blanks of what she is feeling. Even during life-altering events that would seemingly serve as a turning point in the character's story arc, Cleo's character is stoic. Silence as a personality trait is limiting. Maybe the point of Cleo's character is that she has a muted voice due to her class status--but that seems awfully reductive.
The father of the family is largely absent because he is cheating on his wife, and Cleo fills the space left by his departure. This appears to be additional commentary on the many roles in the service industry, such as doormen, butlers, etc, in which a large aspect of the role is to seamlessly fill the cracks of day-to-day annoyances by playing as many roles as necessary.
One example of this is a scene in which the family is watching television in the living room. The family sits on the couch while Cleo silently cleans up around them. She stops to watch for a few moments, sitting on a pillow on the floor, giving the impression that she is almost one of the family members. But then she is interrupted by a request and must continue with her duties. She can hang out with family members, but heartfelt affection is only occasionally reciprocal, usually from the kids. Her role is to be a social chameleon, fading into the background and performing the role of whatever the family needs her to be. Cuarón based Cleo off his real-life childhood nanny who has had two cameos in his previous films, but the film does little to develop her character in intimate detail.
Even during the most ordinary moments of the movie, Cleo's journey is captivating. Aside from her full-time job, she navigates a relationship with her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and enjoys going to the movies with her roommate/co-worker Adela (Nancy García García).
Cleo realizes she is pregnant with Fermin's baby. She travels to meet him, only to have him threaten her and deny the baby is even his. During this scene, one would expect a reaction from Cleo, but she hardly responds. The only times we get more than implied emotion are during Cleo's tense, heart-wrenching birth scene and the climactic beach scene in which she rescues one of the children from drowning and admits in the aftermath of the event that she did not want her baby. These moments where Cleo's inner turmoil is finally displayed feel especially significant and rewarding.
Roma tends to move at a glacial pace that casual viewers (and me, at first) may find frustrating. The shots sometimes feel self-indulgent, implying layers of meaning that are worthy of studying for multiple hypnotizing minutes on end. Every shot is gorgeous, so depending on the viewer's patience, this isn't necessarily a negative.
Despite Cleo's character being sort of a blank slate for the audience to project their own sentiments on, Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is an absolute masterpiece. Without a doubt the finest drama of 2018, this is the rare film that feels like a timeless arthouse classic. Roma is captivating for how real the characters and their world seem, filmed with impeccable precision and slavish attention to every last detail. Roma is a movie with a compelling story, A+ acting, and groundbreaking camera work. It is 2018's must-see.