ROMA, Alfonso Cuarón Orozco’s newest film is his best film yet; it’s pretty perfect, compelling, relevant, and brilliantly insightful into human nature and the complex, human-designed social and economic systems that play out in Mexico in 1970. ROMA is the kind of movie that comes just a few times in a generation and forms part of a canon of masterpieces. Like the Mexican saying goes, “no le pide nada a nadie” the direct translation, “it/he/she doesn’t ask anyone for anything” doesn’t convey the meaning of the phrase, the meaning is along the lines of “it”, in this case ROMA, is uniquely great and can stand on its own, it doesn’t require anyone’s approval, permission to exist, or others’ resources; it’s fiercely determined and independent in thought. With that said, ROMA can proudly stand alongside films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria or La Strada, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma.
Cuarón Orozco’s “Roma” is not Pasolini’s, the latter refers to Rome, Italy, the former to a bugie neighborhood in the heart of Mexico city that is a microcosm of the country’s class dynamics, tied to affluence, and racist foundations. ROMA is about Cleo, an indigenous Mexican woman who works as a servant in a middle class household in the Colonia Roma in Mexico City. Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, who was cast after Cuarón Orozco’s team spent a year looking for the right actor. Ms. Aparicio had just finished her studies at the “Normal”, Mexico’s specialized teacher education university. After one graduates from the “Normal”, there can be a lag of six months to a year before one gets a teaching assignment, lucky for Cuarón Orozco, Ms. Aparicio was up for this life-changing adventure while she waited for her teaching assignment. Ms. Aparicio is magnificent in the role, she may never go back to teaching. An interesting note on the economics of the family is that ROMA gives viewers a reality check about what class systems mean. In the case of the family for whom Cleo works, which by the way, is never given a surname per se, it’s not mega-rich, or glitzy, because in countries that are class-based like Mexico, one doesn’t have to be; one just has to have more than the people that work for one.
Cuarón Orozco’s ROMA is honestly critical without being judgmental or preachy; he simply describes things as they were, and still are to a certain degree. Cuarón Orozco is part of a generation that is now reaching or has reached middle age and are a link between the generation described in the film and the new and increasingly-western generation. Cuarón Orozco’s generation is in a position to hold the past generation accountable for political atrocities like the massacre of Tlatelolco in 1968 and subsequent military action against student demonstrations, the fomentation of paramilitary groups and toxic political practices. This same generation has the power to amplify the decolonization process that is slowly emerging but battling against encroaching American demands that the world reflects its politics and value system. Cuarón Orozco’s generation is boldly turning its lens and efforts to recognizing the diversity that has always been part of Mexican society and that the post-revolution ideas of nationalism tried to mute. Thus, Cuarón Orozco incorporates Mixtec into the dialogue, unapologetically, just as Lila Downs sings in Náhualt, and others sing in Zapotec, and writers incorporate any number of the 68 indigenous languages into texts without translation—all these are acts of decolonization that will inspire others, and maybe someday, forge a path for equity. Cuarón Orozco reiterates the dueling relationship between urban and rural Mexico, city and nature, western thought and magic. ROMA, like other films such as Güeros, and Danzón, takes transformative events back to nature, to Veracruz, to be precise—because this region, along with the deep mountain-scapes of other southern states, still holds space for the Mexican soul.
Cinematically speaking, ROMA is sublime. The film is produced by Netflix and along a handful of others was released in large screen movie establishments in November, and recently online. The release strategy is part of Netflix’s overall strategy to pivot the industry once more, because now more than ever, viewers’ options for film delivery is wide open. This strategy has put Netflix in direct confrontation with traditional and established arbiters of the film industry like the Cannes Film Festival. ROMA may just about seal the deal for the new paradigm shift because of its undeniable genius, would the industry turn away a Fellini movie just because it didn’t play at Cannes? It behooves viewers to seek out screenings of ROMA on the big screen because it’s the best way to fall into its rhythm and be immerse fully, but regardless, it’s a must-see because it is made up of brilliant scene, after brilliant scene, symbolism and a quietude that is accompanied by a soundtrack that is just as understated and meaningful.
ROMA is playing in different theatres across the states and is now also available on Netflix.