Review: Netflix’s ‘Roma’ Manages to Make the Banalities of Life Immersive
Because Roma is a black and white film, shot with an unknown cast, Alfonso Cuaron was initally not too confident about having a regular theatrical release and hence sold its rights to Netflix. All he had to do was land in Mumbai for the week between 26 October and 1 November, stand in any of the serpentine queues for his film at the MAMI film festival, and be proven wrong. Maybe someone from Netflix did that, which is probably why Roma is getting a theatrical release before it streams online. As for me, I had three failed attempts across consecutive days before I finally managed to score myself a seat.
Set in Mexico City between 1970-71, Roma tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as a maid along with Adela (Nancy García), for Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga)—an upper middle-class couple who live with their four young children and Sofia’s mother. The film moves between two economic classes—that of the house owners and the staff—and two languages, Spanish and Mixtec (an indigenous language comprising a group of regional dialects). Cleo is completely dedicated to her job and adored by the children. Cuaron uses repetitive visuals of her various chores—waking up the kids, scrubbing floors, hanging up laundry and so on.
On her days off, Cleo hangs out with her boyfriend Fermin, a martial arts enthusiast. Life is good for Cleo and Sofia until one fine day, Antonio leaves, while Cleo realises she’s pregnant only to be dumped by Fermin. And thus, joined by the twin tragedies of their life, the two women find common ground. As mistress and maid fight their battles, quietly yet overwhelmingly empathetic to each other’s situations, one of them obviously has the freedom to let loose briefly, while the other has no such choice. Also, the children here are the ones who must be protected but are the ones who provide most comfort.
Roma, apart from being shot on 65mm film, also has a sound design constructed with Dolby Atmos, which means it’s an auditory experience as well—You should be able to hear the tinkling of a cup and the distant lapping of the waves of the ocean. One couldn’t quite experience this at the single-screen it was watched at, but truth be told, it didn’t matter.
In one of the most saddening yet bitterly funny sequences of the film, Sofia returns home terribly drunk one night and tells Cleo very wisely that ‘no matter what men tell us (women), ultimately we are alone.’ When we laughed at this dialogue, it wasn’t at the two hapless women, but with them. And therein lies the genius of Roma and Cuaron. It may be set at an alien end of the world, and yet it’s all our lives with the daily drudgery, the shipwreck that strikes with no warning, and how we have no choice but to pick up the pieces and move on and learn to be happy again.