Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writer: Alfonso Cuarón

Roma has been described as the Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film yet and it probably is. After having proved himself a world-class, visionary director with the high-concept fantasies and spectacles of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity, Cuarón has returned back to Earth to tell a story drawn from his own memories. Far from the otherworldly realms of magical sensation and sci-fi dystopia, this is the story of an ordinary woman and the life she lived in the Mexico of the director’s childhood. The picture Cuarón paints in a movie that he wrote, shot and edited himself, is of a life that some might regard as miniscule and minor were it not for the epic, panoramic canvas he uses in all of his work. While other directors use spectacle and phenomena to depict that which is innovative, extraordinary and larger than life, Cuarón brings scale and depth to that which is common, familiar and plain. Roma is a film that is both colossal and intimate at once; it is a captivating and profound drama told on the immense, revolutionary level of an historical epic with the affection, sensitivity and devoted attention to detail of a love letter.

The woman at the centre of it all is the household maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), based on a woman called Libo to whom the film is dedicated. She lives with and works for a wealthy family in their spacious, two-storey home in Roma (a neighbourhood in Mexico City) where it seems like nothing would ever get done without her help. Cleo is responsible for putting the four children (three boys and a girl) to bed at night and waking them up in the morning, serving their meals, washing their clothes and mopping the floors. She lives in the house along with her friend Adela (Nancy García), the household cook, with whom she shares a cramped upstairs room. Cleo and Adela are both from the same village and their conversations will often slip between Spanish and their native tongue of Mixtec as they gossip about their homes and shared acquaintances. As we become privy to Cleo’s daily routine in elongated, mostly static takes, one might notice that these shots are all deliberately situated within the parameters of the house, suggesting how seldom Cleo’s life extends beyond the walls. The very first shot, in fact, depicts an aeroplane flying overhead as seen in the murky reflection of a puddle that Cleo mops up, hinting at how the luxury and escape that such a plane might provide are infinitely far beyond her reach.

It’s a dull, monotonous existence, but it’s also a stable one. That is until a series of life-altering disasters occur that completely upend Cleo’s life and those of the family that she serves. The first of these is when the aloof family patriarch Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who had heretofore been an almost completely absent presence in the house save a scene where he painstakingly struggles to drive his expensive Ford Galaxie onto the dog-shit-infested driveway that’s too narrow to fit it, abandons his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and their children to live with another woman. Subsequent catastrophes include an unexpected pregnancy, an earthquake, a forest fire and a mass student demonstration that erupts in violence (the film never outright states it but this is the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 that it recreates). These are all brought to breathtaking life in black and white digital photography as captured by Cuarón, whose images are truly astonishing in their clarity, composition and character. A trademark of Cuarón’s style is making extravagant use of camera movements, blocking and choreography so that the use of editing may be as minimal as possible, allowing the scenes to play out in real time and letting the viewer appreciate the spaces that each of the characters occupy. The same applies here as we follow Cleo’s movements throughout the film in such a way that by the time we reach the end, we feel like we’ve walked a thousand miles in her shoes.

Although much happens in the 135 minutes that make up the film’s runtime, Roma doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. There’s no journey to complete, no villain to defeat and no mystery to solve. The film is structured into scenes which each give us a greater, more comprehensive insight into who Cleo is and the kind of life that she lives. We learn that her upper-class employer Sofía considers her a friend (or at least likes to think that she does) and that there is a recognition of a parallel between them that almost makes them equals to one another in a very specific way, namely that both women have been cruelly betrayed and abandoned by men they mistakenly thought cared for them. However the way that Sofía will take her frustrations and despair out on Cleo in often harsh ways reminds us that there is a power dynamic and class discrepancy between them that will forever keep the pair apart. Cuarón is careful to avoid portraying Cleo’s role of servitude as being characterised by benevolence or complacency and he is sensitive to her socio-political position and anxieties, as evident in the way he consistently stages and frames the family scenes from her point of view. An example of this is when the image of the family gathered together on the sofa watching TV is juxtaposed with the image of Cleo sitting by the side on the floor with one of the children’s arms wrapped around her.

Of course the credit for the movie’s astounding portrait of Cleo doesn’t belong to Cuarón alone. It is Aparicio in her stunning debut who brings Cleo to life with a naturalistic performance worthy of a Roberto Rossellini film. That she isn’t some glamorous movie star playing an idealised version of this Mexican, working-class character is certainly significant in itself but what’s truly remarkable about her performance is the solemn weight and heavenly grace with which she handles the challenging material handed to her. Another actor might have tried for a more assertive, demonstrative performance in an attempt to really sell the anguish that Cleo suffers to the audience, but her pains and woes feel all the more powerful for how quietly tender Aparicio is in the role. The rest of the cast, few of whom were professional actors before Roma, follow Aparicio’s lead in delivering authentic, realistic performances. The family members in particular are able to create a rapport that feels so familiar and personal that it really does feel like they’ve all known each other their entire lives. The naturalism of the ensemble that the film has assembled is a crucial reason why the recreation of 1970’s Mexico City that they inhabit feels so believable and lived in. This is no small feat for a film that is trying to capture a strange, oxymoronic tone somewhere between kitchen-sink realism and Felliniesque surrealism.

For all the film’s use of natural scenery, authentic acting, and the ever present sounds of life teeming all around including the bustling street activity, the distant drone of the aeroplanes and all the other ambient noise, there is still a sense of transcendent ethereality encompassing it all. While there is no shortage of set-pieces featuring events of earth-shattering proportions from the riot that Cleo and the family grandmother Teresa (Verónica García) find themselves caught in the middle of to the poignant Tuxpan beach scene where Cleo’s despair reaches its heartbreaking zenith, the camera remains impassive through them all. There is both a strange eeriness and graceful serenity to the way in which film drifts weightlessly within and between these turbulent episodes. Cuarón hints that there may well be something intangible at play with the inclusion of a child, possibly based on himself (the central family is clearly his but it’s less obvious the extent to which Cuarón himself is present in the story) who nonchalantly recalls his past lives, recounting in one instance how he was once a sailor who drowned in a storm. It’s exactly the kind of nonsense that an imaginative child might say that most grown ups would simply dismiss with a laugh as Cleo does. The image that the child evokes however seems curiously reflective of some of the events that occur, especially when you notice the recurrence of water as a motif, and so perhaps there is something behind the boy’s memory.

Or not. In the end Roma doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. It’s one of those films that seems to be about the whole world and everything in it and breaking it down into a single idea is likely to prove an exercise in futility. The idea I find myself returning to though is memory. After all, what drove Cuarón to make this film in the first place were his memories of a woman who meant a great deal to him as a young boy. Coupled with that though is this recognition that Libo was someone who lived a whole life and underwent experiences he could never hope to know and understand in their limitless entirety. This is in part because Cuarón grew up with certain privileges (of which he is aware) that will forever detach him from the world that his housemaid embodied and it is also partly because of the inherent limitations of a person’s memory. There is a definite specificity to many of the images that the film creates such as the family house, which was modelled after Cuarón’s childhood home and was designed with the kind of acquaintance and detail that only one who lived there could provide. Cuarón lets his imagination fill out the rest and the result is a fictional conception of a person’s past in a film that entreats us to consider the enormity of each individual’s life and the countless stories that each of them is living. Roma is about life; it’s about birth and death and everything that happens in between and what it captures so marvellously in all of its beauty and chaos is the eternal struggle of living.