Time to Breathe: 'Roma' Restores My Faith in Netflix

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Live From The Algorithm is a weekly review series taking a look at the wide variety of Netflix Original Content, from the best to the worst to the outright bizarre.

by Jacob Wallace

Can a diary be problematic? Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” feels like the most personal movie we’ve seen from him — it’s a story from the depths of memory, one where the narrator takes long pauses to consider which moment came next.

The movie is dedicated to his own maid from childhood, with whom he spoke prior to creating “Roma.” Cuaron stops to consider the hardships in the life of a maid that, as a young child, he did not imagine. In its best moments, “Roma” demonstrates the devastatingly monotonous rhythm in the life of a woman contracted to be compassionate. It’s chief criticism may be questioning the agency that Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio giving a beautifully complex performance, seemingly lacks.

The cinematography might be Cuaron’s most restrained work yet, save perhaps for “Gravity,” which was largely content to rest on Sandra Bullock. There are many postcard moments that reminded me of the work of Mexican indie filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke (whom I wrote about once before in *ahem* another publication). These moments occur when the camera lies still on a moment, and the invisible narrator pauses to let his characters experience their emotions for the first time. They’re devastatingly beautiful, notably when Cleo is watching her former lover violently train in martial arts. The most recognizable technique in the movie is undoubtedly the slow pans that dizzyingly spin around with Cleo as she works her same chores each day.

The scene that stuck with me the most is also one of the best to use those pans. Cleo is lying next to Paco, the youngest of the family’s children, on a rooftop towards the beginning of the film. We’ve just seen her washing clothes, and as the camera slowly pans away we become aware of more and more dogs and maids, washing and cleaning at the same time as each other on rooftops across Mexico City.

There’s an uncomfortable conflation at one point between those dogs and the maids who are employed by rich families. On holiday to visit relatives, Cleo is taken aside by a related family’s maid to be shown a room where all the family’s former dogs have been taxidermied. The room looks straight out of “Coraline,” and I couldn’t help but wonder if the help was in some way like those dogs: a good maid is a prize to be celebrated, but also a distinctly second-class presence who doesn’t earn the same kind of respect an actual family member would.

Over the course of the movie, Cleo’s character goes on an arc (avoiding spoilers here) that potentially leads her to develop a life separate from the family she cares for, only to fall back into their arms - literally - by the end of the film. She loves the family, and it’s beautiful to see that they love her as well. Yet principally, she is still employed by them. She is still at their service in a way that no other family member is. Doesn’t it bother anybody that there seems to be a clear power imbalance here?

One of the more recent powers we’ve discovered on the internet is the ability to read deep into the archives of a person’s diary. We’re able to glimpse into their flawed thoughts from times when they maybe weren’t as woke as they are today. In some ways, “Roma” reminds me of this ability.

We can now see clearly into a past that Cuaron has such a deep sense of nostalgia for.  That feeling is beautifully expressed, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be nice if, like an off-color tweet, we could just delete that portion of the diary that doesn’t hold up? You know, the part where a family arrangement feels based on a faulty dynamic in retrospect? But no, we have to contend with that for ourselves. “Roma” asks us to confront how the people who've shaped us actually lived - not just as supporting characters in our own lives but lead characters in their own. It's a compelling proposition.

Rating: 4 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦 out of 5 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦

Possible Netflix Categories: Family Drama, Swimming Documentaries, Oscar Winners