Decisions have consequences. Sometimes they’re gigantic. Can you imagine if President Obama had hesitated and decided not to send in Seal Team Six to kill Osama bin Laden? If General Eisenhower had opted not to postpone the invasion of Normandy due to poor weather conditions?
Most of the time, our decisions don’t feel monumental. However, like small streams feeding into a river that runs to the sea, they build upon each other. Take a moment to consider the decisions you’ve made in the last year. Think about where you were versus where you are now. It might not feel like it, but you’ve likely traveled a long way.
Take Alfonso Cuarón, for example. His film Gravity was released in 2013. A 90-minute thriller about rookie astronaut Sandra Bullock getting her ass kicked by space, Cuarón’s film won a truckload of awards including Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Considering the critical love and the worldwide gross of more than $700 million, Cuarón found himself in an enviable position, one in which he could do anything he wanted for his next project.
His initial plan was to make a family drama set 50,000 years in the past. Cuarón pitched the idea to Thierry Frémaux, the head of the Cannes Film Festival. Frémaux considered it, then suggested that Cuarón make something more personal. The idea took root in Cuarón’s head, and he thought back to his own upbringing and the two women who shaped the man he would become. The end result is his new film, Roma.
It’s the early 1970’s, and we’re dropped into Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood. A woman diligently mops a stone driveway as a dog happily bounds around her. This is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and her immediate job is to clean dog poop off the driveway. It won’t be the last time she performs this task. She’s a servant in the employ of a comfortably wealthy family, and we can feel their comfort as she walks through their large home, turning off what seems like hundreds of lights.
Her employers are Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Señor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), along with Sofia’s mother Señora Teresa (Veronica Garcia). There’s also a gaggle of children in the family who love Cleo and whom she adores in return. Every day she gets them fed, off to school, into bed, and somehow this quiet young woman is able to efficiently manage what seems like a group of unruly puppies.
As quiet as Cleo is, we can see how observant she is. She’s able to sidestep domestic problems, particularly the obvious tension between Sofia and Antonio. While she’s taken on lavish and chaotic vacations with the family, she always knows when to pick up a suitcase here or tidy up there. Cleo is good at her job. She likes it and likes the family, even though Sofia has made it clear to her that she’s an employee.
When she’s not working, Cleo is dating Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young man who is intensely and amusingly dedicated to martial arts. Does she love him? Perhaps, but he, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to love her. We see the proof of that when she confronts him about her just-discovered pregnancy during a movie. He quickly excuses himself to use the restroom and promptly ditches her. And then? Simply put, life happens.
It’s time for a gut check, guys. On the one hand, I strongly believe that it does a body good to step outside of their cinematic comfort zone from time to time. If you’re someone who sticks to the blockbusters, it wouldn’t kill you to give Roma a shot.* On the other hand, let me be real. Roma is a) two hours and 15 minutes long b) shot in black and white c) subtitled as both Spanish and Mixtec are spoken and d) is virtually plot-free. Forget a bridge too far; for some of you that might be a superhighway too far.
You should watch it anyway! Despite being a period drama, Cuarón’s direction is as precise and meticulous as ever. He worked as his own cinematographer, and he shoots in stunning black and white. He also keeps the characters at a distance and his frequently leisurely panning shots allow us to soak in the details of life in the house and beyond. The imagery is incredibly moving,** and we learn a great detail about the characters and their moods. Fair warning, the pacing…uh…takes its time. You might feel for long stretches that a whole lot of nothing is happening, but that’s not the point.
Cuarón based the screenplay on his experiences growing up in Mexico City, and he was the only one during production who knew exactly what direction the story was heading in. Every day prior to filming he would hand lines to his actors and provide them with direction that was often contradictory. Wise Cuarón! His script has the chaotic rhythms of real life, and there are never any lines that feel like they were written. It all feels real and organic, and he allegedly pulled 90 percent of the script from his childhood memories.
When it comes to acting, I maintain that the most difficult kind of role an actor can play is a normal person. No weird mannerisms and no dramatic monologues because we don’t behave that way in real life. The entire cast takes this to heart, acting like normal people living their lives. The standout of the cast, though? Just for the hell of it, Yalitza Aparicio decided to audition for the lead role of Cleo while waiting on test results to be a teacher. She had absolutely no prior experience, and she gives a performance that’s subtle and intelligent.
Roma essentially has no plot, but it doesn’t need one. Cuarón has reached back into his memories and made a finely crafted tribute to his mother and to Libo, the woman who worked for his family and was just as responsible for raising him as his own parents. He’s shared a year in his life, focusing on the kinds of people that film too often ignores. His film is incredibly specific, but it could be set in Seattle or Beijing or Galway. Roma shows us the ebb and flow of life, and that is a valuable thing.
*It’s also easy to watch since it’s streaming on Netflix right now. You don’t even have to put on pants to watch it!
**You’ll also see many, many scenes of the most beautifully and immaculately photographed dog poop. I’m serious.