After a couple of grandiose, English-language sci-fi projects and a short-lived U.S. TV series (with multiple hiatuses inbetween), Alfonso Cuarón has finally returned to filmmaking in his native country and language for the personal, semi-autobiographical drama, Roma. A far cry from the high-concept thrills of Children of Men and Gravity (films heralded for their innovative action sequences and complex effects and camerawork), Roma appears as a far more modest affair — no lives or the fate of the world at stake, just the character’s happiness.
Roma follows a couple of years in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, excellent and soulful in her first and only acting role), a native South American woman and a hard-working housekeeper for a rich Mexican family, headed up by a doctor and a teacher. Based on events from Cuarón’s childhood, the whole film feels like an intensely personal affair. It’s cinematic reverie in the vein of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes or Distant Voices, Still Lives, each scene tinged with the nostalgia and melancholy of memory. It’s so packed with detail and feels so lived in that it feels like it only could have come from experience, as shown through not only the family, but the lives of people around them in 1970s Mexico City.
Cleo is often left to act as a surrogate mother to the children in the absence of their parents, so much that she may as well be. In other words, she has to deal with a lot of shit, often literally, and clearly has the patience of a saint — wrangling several children with a compulsion towards screaming, fighting and doing the exact opposite of whatever any adult asks them to do. On top of all this, two events occur that destabilise Cleo’s life; a fracture in the family she works for, and an unexpected pregnancy. She quietly shoulders both, the weight of each issue bearing down on her until it’s impossible to bear.
Roma is filmed in gorgeous, high contrast black and white — a stripped back aesthetic compared to Cuarón’s usual work, but no less emotive. There’s an abundance of beautiful panning camera movements, many of which linger in each space even once the subject has left the frame. For example, the camera pans around in a 360-degree arc in shots of Cleo cleaning a room, and continues panning after she has left. It’s the most emotive use of Cuarón’s signature long takes, keenly observing the characters, environments and how people leave their mark, rather than for the sake of virtuoso filmmaking itself. It looks so good that one can only wait with baited breath to see how Netflix handles the film’s release; with rich sound design and such tactility in its visuals, it would be a shame for this to be mostly confined to the smaller screen.
As well as following Cleo’s trials and tribulations, Roma makes plenty of room to study the other characters in her life. This includes, but isn’t limited to, her employer, a mother feeling the strain of separation from her husband, and her first boyfriend Fermín — who turns out to be a far greater victim of toxic masculinity than one could have anticipated after a scene in which he brags about his martial arts prowess while in the nude. From this point, the film becomes a portrait of women suffering the whims of emotionally unavailable men, who come and go as soon as it becomes inconvenient or uninteresting to them to be around, no matter the consequence to those they’ve sworn to. Further still, Roma colours in the background with scenes of class difference as well as political turmoil, with a later scene going into harrowing detail of a protest that ends up being violently suppressed by the government via civilians they recruited.
Despite all this detail, there are points in the narrative that stretch credibility a little. It wouldn’t be too striking in any other case, but it feels out of sync with the film’s tone, which often flirts with neo-realism in its grounded approach to its subject matter. Still, it proves effective — a later scene set in a local hospital is sure to devastate even the most hardy of audiences. All of this isn’t to say that Roma is humourless, however. It has a light, loving sense of humour throughout that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hirokazu Kore-eda film, such as a running joke with the father’s car, a classic Ford Galaxy that’s too wide for basically anywhere it’s driven.
Anchored by a deeply sympathetic performance from Aparicio, Roma is an empathetic, sentimental, stirring delight. While it’s a much humbler film from Cuarón than audiences have become accustomed to, it’s still full of impressive technical flourishes. It’s a beautiful and tactile film, flush with details of a life left well in the past, and the longing nostalgia and deep affection for the people associated with that time and place.
Kambole Campbell (@kambolecampbell) is a London-based freelance film critic. He contributes regularly at Birth.Movies.Death, Little White Lies and Crack Magazine, and has had work featured at The Guardian. Kambole is also the Features Editor at One Room With a View.