Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid and nanny in a middle-class household in 1970s Mexico City, navigates an emotionally straining year for herself and her adoptive family.
Memory is complex – and despite how many films portray it, we don’t recount childhood episodes through developed narratives with fleshed out characters. We experience our memories through smells, sounds, colours. That’s what ROMA is. An ode to childhood memories and people we remember fondly, even if we don’t remember them correctly.
How memories are reignited through the senses is core to the film’s charm. Cuarón’s cinematography focuses on the minute details of Cleo’s world through long tracking shots and lengthy stills. From the family dog’s wagging tail to a street side restaurant filled with the sounds of sizzling, each set piece feels carefully constructed. It’s as if the director wanted to account for every single experiential moment to immerse the viewer, make them live in this world just as the characters do. It makes for some tiresome still shots that run too long, yes, but we become as ingrained in the story’s backdrop as the city’s skyline or street rubbish.
The world of Mexico City in the 1970s is an explosion of noise and people. Moments with Cleo racing through the city centre feel like a flashback to 40s Hollywood, while scenes in the suburban home feel very different. Unlike the city, which bustles by in quick tracking shots, Cleo’s household opens up for us to see at our leisure in wide stills. The certainty of home is the only thing we come to understand in ROMA, even when that home is put out of place by tragedy.
The youngest child in the family, Pepe, has the closest connection with Cleo and is meant to be autobiographical for Cuarón himself. That’s where the story gets confused. There are blank holes here, characters only half sketched, like from the memory of a child. We never really get to know Cleo – yes, she has something of a social life and is loved by her adoptive family. But we never see her as anything more than an extension of them, the hardworking, muted help who allows herself outings in exchange for stoicism. Cleo might be the one we follow most, but calling her the central figure doesn’t do her justice. We learn very little about her past, her mother and home village, or life before her current employment. She’s an enigma, stories clouded by the change her family experiences. The same applies to her family – while there are some emotionally draining moments in ROMA, we feel like strangers walking through someone else’s memories, uncertain of who the characters really are or why they do what they do.
ROMA works as an experiment with memory on screen, but not as well as a film in which we seek catharsis for rich and compelling characters. Where the film picks itself up again is in the acting performances. There are solid all round, but Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo is the undoubted star of the show. Despite knowing little about her, you can’t help but admire the patience and love for her employers/family, which Aparicio communicates with remarkable restraint throughout. Worthy of an Oscar perhaps, but ROMA itself will likely come short.
Cuarón’s intensely personal experiences are firmly stamped on this film, leaving us with a vivid sensory experience but meandering plot and character arcs. 6.5/10