Movie Review: “Roma,” in hazy, black-and-white shots, dazzles

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In “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón brings Cleo, a live-in maid for a well-off Mexico City family in the early 1970s, to the forefront.

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In Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white, semi-autobiographical film “Roma,” the rituals, surprises and tragedies of domestic servitude are enlivened by stirring, elegant cinematography. Cuarón, via long, indulgent shots and detailed-oriented set designs, chronicles the intricate story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for an eclectic, well-off family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, where Cuarón was brought up.

Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García), the other live-in maid, speak to their employers in Spanish, but converse among themselves in Mixteca, an indigenous Mexican language, rendering the divide between Cleo’s working, urban life in Roma and her upbringing in a far-off Mexican village all the more clear.

Though Cleo’s days are occupied by the monotonous chores expected of a live-in maid — cleaning the home, cooking meals, playing with the four young children, divvying up tasks between her and Adela — Cuarón consistently injects moments of levity and profundity into her daily toil, even vis-à-vis the pesky family dog’s recurring indoor defecation.

In one scene, Cleo queries the cherub-like youngest son, Pepe (Marco Graf), as he lies supine upon an elevated surface.

“Can’t talk,” he responds, adding, morbidly, “I’m dead.”

Cleo, mid-laundering, claps back: “Then resurrect.” Yet, in a soft, indelible moment, she lies down behind him, their heads adjoined and their eyes closed toward the sun. “I like being dead,” she concedes with a slight smirk.

Incisive utterances, however, are not Cleo’s preferred method for relaying her inner thoughts; her eyes, demeanor and movements are often more expressive than her words. Cuarón plays on this silence, structuring steady, near-overbearingly long shots around her in motion — Cleo moving about the house, Cleo mopping the driveway, Cleo scurrying down the street after Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), one of the children, runs ahead of her.

At one point, after Cleo steps into a closet to fetch cleaning supplies, Cuarón holds the shot on its closed door, waiting for her to come back. In clasping the viewer’s gaze on her for minutes at a time, Cuarón reminds us that Cleo’s importance transcends the spoken word. She, in turn, is not just the film’s protagonist, but its focal point.

It becomes increasingly clear that she is the focal point of the family, too — in terms of both its orderliness and the well-being of its occupants. When, for instance, the father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor at a nearby hospital, leaves his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Cleo’s stability and unwavering patience soothe the children.

The family, for the most part, recognizes her indispensable role, and respects her as such. After Cleo is impregnated by Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), the taciturn, martial-arts-practicing comrade of Adela’s boyfriend, Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza), she presumes that she’ll be fired. However, when, in tears, she tells Sofia, this assumption is swiftly dismissed: instead, Sofia coolly takes her to the hospital for a check-up; Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Verónica García), who also lives with them, takes her to buy a crib; and Antonio, flighty as he is, placates her as she goes into labor.

To the attentive viewer, the film’s black-and-white overlay might be seen as a testimony to its vivid capacity for contrast: the rich juxtaposed against the poor, familial love amid separation, silence drowning out chaos, life immediately confronted by death. How better to prime viewers for, say, Cleo’s water breaking in a children’s store as the Corpus Christi massacre unfolds before her?

In this sense, “Roma” masterfully superimposes the calamitous upon the quotidian: the classism, globalization, political uproar and tension of Mexico City in the early 1970s punctuate Cleo’s experience in a manner that feels both iniquitous and inevitable. Yet, despite centering itself around Cleo, “Roma” brilliantly captures the intricacies of women’s plight — and resilience — across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries.

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