We see the world unseeing. We grow familiar, and so grow blind.
English poet William Blake once wrote that we could “see heaven in a wild flower,” but wildflowers are common things: dandelions in driveway cracks, thistles by the road. We don’t stop to behold them, and so we look past their beauty, complexity, design—the divine brushstroke in leaf and petal and stem.
How exponentially more glorious we are, crafted woman and man, boy and girl. How much more easily ignored.
Cleo rises early. She wakes the children with a tender smile and touch and begins the day’s work—stripping beds, picking up clothes, straightening furniture. When breakfast is ready, she’s there with the plates, serving her employers with practiced modesty. And when the children are ready for school, Cleo takes them. The children love her, and she them. Her employers, Sofia and Antonio, see her as critical cog in the machinery of their 1970s Mexico City home. But still, it’s easy to overlook all she does and who she is.
And so it goes, day into day. Like the furniture she dusts, Cleo’s a part of the home, as steady as the sun. And sometime after that sun floats past the horizon, Cleo leaves, too—retiring to her small apartment, where she and the family’s cook, Adela, talk a little and laugh a little and sleep when they can.
But even here, in this walled-off home, change comes.
It comes from outside the walls: Political turmoil stirs and heaves, as if the country itself is gasping for air. Corruption, the city growls. Reform. Land. Money. Still, the chaos outside sounds only dimly, darkly, inside the home’s cloistered walls and routine. Everything will be fine.
But change comes from inside the walls, too: Sofia feels like a rubber band, pulled almost to breaking. Antonio, a doctor, is hardly ever home. And then, after one business trip, Antonio doesn’t come home at all. Sofia tells the children that business just kept him longer than expected: Everything will be fine.
And perhaps change comes in Cleo, too. New life grows inside her: a child of her own. Everything will be fine, Cleo’s boyfriend tells her. I’m with you.
Then he’s gone, leaving even his coat behind.
Cleo is familiar to her family, and they to her. For weeks and months and maybe years, they’ve been together, dancing through their daily routines in a house where life seems—seemed—as stable as the sun.
We see the world unseeing, but change is on its way. And once it comes, nothing will look the same.
Director Alfonso Cuarón (who won a Best Director Oscar for 2014’s Gravity) has said that Roma is a deeply personal work, recreating memories of his own childhood. Especially, it was meant to be a love letter of sorts to Libo Rodríguez, the nanny who helped raise him.
“Libo, like so many domestic workers, they go beyond a normal job and take on all these roles that are supposed to be covered by the parents,” Cuarón told Variety.
From the first, Roma focuses on Cleo, who does the household’s most menial tasks with a certain quiet glory. She doesn’t just work for this family: She loves it, especially the children, and she would risk her life to safeguard them. And while the children have always appreciated her, the adults gradually grow to realize her worth as well, realizing that she’s a critical part of their family.
Sofia, the family’s mother, doesn’t initially come across as sympathetically as Cleo does. She’s prone to shout and criticize; and Cleo and fellow servant Adela make a joke or two at her expense when she’s out of earshot. But we should cut her some slack, given that her marriage is crumbling in front of her grieving eyes. She loves her kids dearly, and she tries to protect them as much as she can. But like the walls around her home, Sofia can only protect them so much.
Cleo’s scared to death to tell Sofia that she’s pregnant, worrying that she might lose her job. Instead, Sofia and Sofia’s own mother, Teresa, turn surprisingly maternal, shepherding their frightened servant through the process, taking her to expensive doctors and buying her a crib. In a super-scary situation where Cleo might’ve otherwise felt all alone, Sofia assures her that she’s not—and that’s nice to see.
We see a cross hanging on a wall inside the family’s home. Three more crosses stand outside elsewhere. Cleo sometimes calls the children her “angels,” and one of the boys tends to fall into what sounds like past-life reveries: “Before I was born, I was a pilot,” he’ll say, describing even how he died. He and Cleo talk about being dead and resurrected. We see people clasp their hands in prayer during an earthquake. A song from Jesus Christ Superstar plays in the background during a party.
Men at a quasi-military training academy discuss the power of the spirit. One of them performs a feat of “magic”—essentially striking a contorted, yoga-like pose. He challenges the men to imitate him if they’re not duly impressed: No one can do it—except for visiting Cleo.
Cleo and her boyfriend, Fermin, ditch a movie and rent a room for some “alone time” instead. We see Fermin performing a martial arts sequence with a shower rod in the nude, apparently to impress Cleo (who’s trying not to laugh). It’s a pretty lengthy scene, and nothing—absolutely nothing—is hidden from the camera’s view. Fermin then slides onto the bed, and the two kiss before the camera wanders away. Cleo later discovers that she’s pregnant.
We learn that Antonio, the family’s father, ran away with his mistress. One of his sons and a friend spy the two of them running down the street, with the son angrily denying that the man was his father. While Sofia tries to keep the truth from her children as long as possible, the family’s oldest boy overhears his mother talking on the phone about the affair, worrying over what might become of them all (since he’s not sending any money).
At a New Year’s party, a man makes a pass at Sofia, which she angrily rejects. Cleo and fellow servant Adela gossip about guys and beaus. A couple of boys seek out erotic magazines (which we see from a distance). Some women wear tight, revealing clothing, and guys sometimes go shirtless.
The events of Roma coincide with the Corpus Christi Massacre (which took the lives of about 120 people in Mexico City on June 10, 1971), and the film recreates that horrific event in perilous detail: A rioter (part of a group called “Los Halcones”) shoots an innocent man in the chest, apparently killing him. (It’s a shocking moment; but because the film is black-and-white, it’s not quite as graphic as it could be.) We see several people, perhaps dozens, lying in the streets either dead or dying. Several hours later, a hospital overflows with the wounded.
Before the massacre, Roma foreshadows the violence that’s to come. Grandmother Teresa worries that college students might be beaten by government forces during their increasingly frequent demonstrations. The land around a sprawling hacienda is set ablaze on New Year’s Eve, and a costumed reveler sings while other guests frantically try to extinguish the blaze. A group of men engage in quasi-military drills, supervised, it’s said, by an American observer.
After Cleo gets pregnant, she tries to talk with Fermin about the pending arrival. Fermin is furious and threatens the well-being of both her and the unborn child.
People brandish, point and fire guns. A woman slaps another. A dead baby is seen. Drinks are knocked over. Two people nearly drown. The stuffed heads of dearly departed family dogs adorn a room. People fire guns at targets.
Roma is a foreign language movie, and all of its dialogue is either in Spanish or in Mixtec (the indiginous language of Cleo and others). Profanities translated in the film’s English subtitles include four f-words, about the same number of s-words, as well as “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “p-ss,” “crap” and the British profanity “bloody.”
Several adults smoke cigarettes, and we see the ashtray in a family car overflowing with cigarette butts. People drink at a New Year’s Eve party, some of whom are obviously intoxicated. Someone offers Cleo a glass of pulque (an alcoholic drink quaffed since the days of the Aztecs and Maya). After a token refusal, she accepts the offer and nearly drinks it before someone knocks the beverage to the ground accidentally. We hear talk about someone drinking and huffing chemicals.
Cleo’s family has a dog that does his business in the home’s enclosed carport. We see lots of feces, including some that Antonio steps in (much to his consternation). The cleanliness of the carport—or lack thereof—becomes a marital bone of contention.
Sofia lies about Antonio’s whereabouts to her children. And when one of her children discovers the sordid truth, Sofia asks him to lie, too.
Roma, like its protagonist Cleo, could be easy to overlook. It’s a black-and-white, foreign-language drama. Few people will see it in theaters (where its gorgeous cinematography would play best): Instead, they’ll watch it on Netflix, the same place they might binge The Great British Baking Show. Forget showy explosions or splashy CGI or lush period-piece costumes. You won’t find any A-list actors here: Many of Roma’s performers, including the woman who plays Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) have never acted before.
But look closely, and you’ll see that Roma is a thing of rare beauty.
This should not be taken as a pass to watch without considering the film’s content concerns. Roma’s uncomfortable (and unnecessary) male nudity pushes the film squarely into R-rated territory, as does its subtitled profanity.
Even so, Roma remains a deeply affecting work—stunning in its use of light and shadow, resonant in its unassuming storytelling. And it also gives us a glimpse of something truly sublime: the glorious nobility of service.
Jesus tells us that we should serve others, so we know it’s good advice. But most of us—especially those of us who live in the United States, where strength and vanity often hold a certain pride of place—secretly find the concept of servitude rather demeaning and weak. We strive for our promotions, grasp for bigger paychecks. We yearn to lead. We long to be recognized. We want to be important.
Cleo, by the world’s telling, is a very unimportant person—relatively uneducated, with no real ambition or aspirations (that we know of). She simply does her job: cooking and caring for her more glamorous, well-heeled employers and their pampered children.
It’d be hard to look at Cleo and her life and say, “I want to be more like that.” But in director Alfonso Cuarón’s capable hands, that’s exactly what the audience does. We see Cleo—really see her—and glimpse someone who is worthy of respect, then admiration, and then perhaps even envy. In her modesty, her quiet dignity, her humility and her ever-present grace, we behold in her a … blessing. A hint of the Beatitudes, where the mournful are comforted, where the meek inherit the earth.
Roma, like Cleo, might seem meek at first, by our oversize cinematic standards. But it packs a wallop in myriad ways.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.