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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

DIRECTOR’S CUT: ‘Roma’ Dazzles With Deceptively Simple Portrait of Mexico City


Viewers rarely get to see a film that feels as simple as it does enriching. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” not only offers this experience, but also creates a quiet, humble sadness whose climax erupts in raw heartbreak. I had heard mixed reviews from friends — while some praised the film as an artistic masterpiece, others rebuked its slow build as tedious and fruitless. Yet the brilliance of “Roma” lies in this ability to communicate the depth and intimacy of personal life through a relatively sparse and subdued plot.

“Roma” paints a black-and-white portrait of the everyday life of a maid Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, while working for an upper-middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. The film follows her life as she deals with a series of personal strife.

The boundaries of Cleo’s life are defined by how she tends to the family: cooking meals, doing laundry and spending time with the children. As characters’ vulnerabilities are revealed through a string of unfortunate events, a mix of tension and sadness slowly builds. The chain begins with Cleo admitting to her boyfriend Fermín, played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, that she believes she is pregnant while they are at the movies. He gets up to go to the bathroom and never returns. As she deals with this struggle, the film also reveals that even the people that she works for, like the mother of the household Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, are experiencing strains on their relationships. These smaller episodes culminate in a violent student demonstration involving a pregnant Cleo that threatens her future.

Cuarón’s cinematography brings a fresh technique and perspective to contemporary filmmaking. His choice to film in black and white, which filmmakers generally use to evoke nostalgia, is paired with a camera that shoots with such clarity that the composition appears modern. This juxtaposition could initially come across as counterintuitive, but it instead illuminates Cuarón’s motive to reflect on a story of the past in the present day. The high resolution allows the audience to feel connected to what is presented on screen, as if the story is something familiar, lurking in our memories. Shooting on an older camera that feels more cohesive with the black and white spectrum would likely have instituted a barrier between the screen and the audience, inhibiting us from appreciating and identifying with Cleo’s emotional journey.

Throughout this journey, the audience knows about Cleo through her day-to-day routine and the devastation that upends this routine. She does not speak about her past, and Cuarón never takes a moment to fill the audience in on her backstory. We are most aware of this during a scene in which Fermín practices his martial arts routine with Cleo watching from the bed, and he opens up to her about the trials of his own past. He tells her about how his mother died when he was just a boy and how he grew up in the slums. The intimacy of these details prompts the audience to quietly acknowledge the fact that Cleo’s past is hardly recognized.

In a review by The New Yorker, Richard Brody argues that Cleo’s lack of character illustration is the film’s “crucial failure.” I could not disagree more with this statement — in fact, I believe that this choice is one of its greatest strengths. This intentional omission of Cleo’s life story allows us to get to know her naturally, through a gradual snapshot in time — a day-by-day reckoning of her authentic existence with our pervasive gaze. Cuarón’s deliberately slow development toward the climax contributes to this feeling of dipping into her everyday life as outsiders who are there to witness and digest the infinite layers of a personal narrative. Cuarón does not owe us Cleo’s background. His film is a way of offering up her current form to us as viewers — not as a life lesson for us to process, but as a gift for us to cherish.

I will be thinking of Cuarón’s artful epic for days, if not weeks, to come. Countless moments of beauty are reflected in the simplicity of his storytelling, conveying the idea that sometimes the most outwardly simple things can be difficult, laborious and complicated to achieve. Through Cuarón’s masterful direction, “Roma” delivers an intimate exploration of the way time breeds reflection and a greater appreciation for life’s moments lost.

Olivia Simon is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Director’s Cut appears in print every other Friday.

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