If you know anything about this much-lauded film, you’re already aware that Roma is a slice-of-life based on Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood, seen primarily through the experiences of the family housekeeper. Shot in lustrous black-and-white, with the camera mostly in the middle distance - the frame of a nearby observer - the story immerses us in personal and national travails of the early 1970s in Mexico, primarily in Mexico City.
The parents are upper-middle-class intellectuals, and their home in the eponymous Roma neighborhood is rich with the trappings of that life - books and lovely furnishings, spacious areas for dining, TV-watching, and family activities. Each of the four children has his/her own room, but they all share Cleo, who wakes them, helps them dress, with her comadre Adela makes them breakfast, and gets them all off to school. While they’re out she’s changing sheets, collecting laundry to scrub on the roof and hang to dry, cleaning, running errands. At the end of the day the cycle is reversed - again the family is fed, tea is fetched for the husband, Cleo tucks in the children one at a time, singing each to sleep. At the end of that long day, she’s in the kitchen washing and putting away dishes for tomorrow. The two young servants live in a small room off the garage, and the daily rhythm of their lives will look familiar to any homemaker - cooking, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing, and tending to the endless needs of others.
The family’s lives are disrupted, and the way they cope highlights the central role Cleo plays in their world. She may be a paid lower-class addition to the household, but when it comes down to it, she is a member of their family, bossed but also cherished and, yes, loved.
Cuaron’s passion for detail is clear in all the camera takes in - a busy clinic, a hacienda where they go for holiday, Cleo and Adela’s day off, the street vendors, bands, and protest marches that crowd their neighborhood, the 1960s and 70s cars, ubiquitous dogs, jets overhead reminding us they live in a large city. The credits are extensive - he invested much of himself in this homage to his family and particularly to Libo (his Cleo stand-in), to whom it’s dedicated.
The density of images brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful late-career film Fanny and Alexander, which celebrates the textures and visual richness of a warm and open life, in high contrast to the stark asceticism of his usual priests and patriarchs. Though Bergman’s film was in saturated color, the detail, the wondrous individuality of each object picked out by the camera, is the same. It reminds us that children often remember in vivid specifics what adults consign to categories: dogs, or windows, or cars. We are richer for Cuaron’s exquisitely-shared memories.