In the opening shot of Alfonso Cuaron‘s”Roma”, we are given a close-up shot of a stone-paved driveway. Soapy water cascades over the rock, as someone off-camera is cleaning it. In the reflection of the water, we can see the sky. A plane then moves across the field of view within the reflection.
For this review, I have been asked to draw parallels between this film and others which also tell a profound story about ordinary life. Thing is, that is a request with many subjective definitions. Any film that reflects a singular person’s experience of life can be profound and empathetic, whether the film takes place in the loneliness of space, or in the life of an indigenous resident of Mexico City.
In the early 1970’s, a young woman named Cleo lives and works as a maid for a middle-class family who seems to regard her as more than a simple employee if not quite a full-fledged family member. Cleo joins the family on trips and truly loves the children she cares for. She also gets admonished for leaving her light on too late at night as it wastes electricity.
Some background scenes of the surrounding zeitgeist give a vague view into the ever-changing landscape of Mexico City in the 1970’s. In one of the most astonishing sequences, Cleo and the family’s grandmother, Señora Teresa, watch a student demonstration turn into a police riot through the window of a furniture showroom. Cuarón doesn’t identify the incident — known as the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. Indeed it is not the main upheaval in the seemingly idyllic world of Cleo and her erstwhile employers. More immediately distressing seems to be Cleo’s unplanned pregnancy by the cousin of her friend’s boyfriend.
If you have yet to see “Roma” for yourself, you may find it faintly ridiculous to compare this film to Cuaron’s “Gravity”, which at face value depicts an astronaut lost in the blackness of space, or even “Children of Men”, a film about the end of the world. But beyond these films’ differences, are the very real similarities. Family, community, loneliness, and the impact of history on one’s present dilemmas.
“Roma” is a very personal story in that it tells an episodic tale from the perspective of one woman throughout a year in her life, but is also directly inspired by Cuaron himself, and the women who raised him. This is what makes ‘Roma” such a masterpiece: the fact that such a personal tale can be instantly relatable to a disparate viewing audience.
Movies are metaphors. When we see Sandra Bullock plummet through space to land, somehow unharmed in the sand of the earth, we are reminded of the ways in which tragedy can launch us into the lonely chasm of blackness found deep within the confines of our minds, as well as the depths of the universe. There is a seen in “Roma” as well, which presents Cleo wading against a wall of threatening waves during a climactic road trip that takes place on a beach. She fights against nature itself and it is not clear whether she will be ultimately triumphant.
Great cinema is an empathy machine. A deeply personal story can capture elements of disparate people’s lives and remind us more than once that each day is a snapshot in a film, and loneliness can feel just as real on a New Mexico beach as it can be in the depths of space. As it can be in a dirty apartment room in Brooklyn.
Thus is the power of the machine.