I am aglow. Roma is cinematic spirit-wind sweeping into the locked room of my heart, casting out the late-year malaise, and baptizing my eyes with new sight. If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, it is because I am in love with Roma. If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, it’s because Roma first revealed them to me. If I give all I possess to the poor and welcome hardship, it is not to earn anyone’s favor. I am favored already, I know, because I have seen Roma and it has opened my eyes.
Upon first glance, Roma appears to be too modest a film to elicit such praise. The story is slight – Roma is a year in the life of a domestic servant, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, Falconetti reborn) working in the home of a wealthy family in Mexico City in the 1970s. She mops. She cooks. She goes on dates to the movies. She turns off lights at night. She goes on holiday with the family. She visits her mother. She cleans up dog poop. Most of Roma is domestic without the drama.
But there are intense moments in the movie. This is an Alfonso Cuarón film after all, he of Gravity and Children of Men. In fact, the most nerve-straining and emotion-wringing moment I’ve experienced in a film all year is in Roma. But the harrowing moments are so dire because we’ve spent so much time with little Cleo. Her existence is beautiful but marginal, a fine calcite crystal on the wall of a cave suddenly broken open by a municipal construction project.
Cleo’s story isn’t the only story we get in Roma. We get a year in the life of the family she works for as well. The parents’ marriage is unraveling, and the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira – please, someone cast her as Lois Lane), is learning how to be a single parent. Roma loves the mother and children as well. God bless them, they are not oblivious to their domestic servant’s struggles. This isn’t a story about the rich taking the poor for granted. Quite the contrary. Roma is a story about the things the rich and the poor have in common, how just beneath the gossamer surface of wealth and the cotton of poverty is what is transcendently human, namely, that we are windows into the infinite, in-dwelt by magic, overflowing with song, that we are loved. Therefore, let us love one another.
Roma is also keenly aware of the ways women are responsible for kindling the flame of humanity in our world. Roma is based entirely on Cuarón’s memories of his childhood in Mexico City, so I believe the critique of men and praise of women is intended as particular to his experience, but movies are instantly iconographic as well. So Cleo is Cuarón’s childhood nanny (the Lipa to whom the film is dedicated), and Sofia is his mother, but they become ours as well as we recognize the ways they are like the caring women in our lives, and as we recognize the ways the men in our lives are allowed to be selfish and absent and unrepentant. Roma isn’t a preachy film at all. It’s just knowing, and it’s comfortable allowing what it knows to be revealed via visual poetry rather than pedantry.
If you are reading this and you have access to Netflix, you can watch Roma right now. And you should. Put your cell phone and tablet and laptop computer in the other room. Set the landline to go straight to a muted answering machine. Turn off the lights. Lock the doors if you need to and pretend you’re out. Sit with Roma. It’ll change the way you see the world, making you aware of the spirit-kissed splendor of every person, every moment, every gift of love’s transcendence shimmering all around.