There’s a shot in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma – which plays this week at the Toronto International Film Festival – less than midway through the movie, of the characters watching John Sturges’ 1969 film Marooned, a story about three astronauts stranded in orbit around Earth. As a viewer, it’s a startling reminder of Cuarón’s abilities (it’s impossible to watch this scene and not think, “oh yeah, Gravity!,” which somehow came out five years ago already), that he can make such an eye-popping spectacle about a woman stranded in space and also make such a grounded, emotionally engaging film about a woman living in circa-1970 Mexico City.
The heart of Roma (titled after the Mexico City neighborhood) is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman who works as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class Mexico City family in 1970. This isn’t the easiest film to write about because this is a movie less about plot and one that more immerses you in this world. On the surface, it’s easy to say that Gravity and Roma don’t have anything in common, but the truth is they have almost everything in common. And that’s Cuarón ability to immerse the viewer in his story, whether that story is set in orbit around Earth or on the streets of Mexico City. When you watch an Alfonso Cuarón movie, you’re pretty much living an Alfonso Cuarón movie. While watching Roma, is was every bit as engrossed as I was watching people being whipped around in space by giant, spinning satellites.
Cleo works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a mother of four whose husband, we watch, leaves on a business trip and just never comes back. We see him again, at his job at the hospital and on the streets of the neighborhood with other women, but never back at the house. And over the course of the film we watch as Sophia slowly comes to the realization that her husband isn’t coming back and now the kids are her responsibility.
But Cleo has her own personal tragedies. Cleo discovers she’s pregnant. She tells the future father this news while on a date at the local movie house. With no remorse, the young man excuses himself to use the bathroom and just never returns. There’s a lot about men skirting responsibilities in Roma, leaving the women in their lives behind to actually deal with the repercussions. Now it’s Cleo and Sophia on their own with the kids and a kid on the way. (But even Cleo’s relationship with Sophia isn’t much more than that of any employer with her boss. Sofia is often kind to Cleo, but she’s still “the help.”) But what follows becomes a vignette of heartbreak and devastation for Cleo. There’s one scene in particular that I won’t get into that left me shattered. (I saw Roma at a screening room by myself and, I’ll admit it here, with no one else around other than the projectionist, I just let the tears rip.)