After making two large in scale films – Gravity and Children of Men – director Alfonso Cuaron has come back with a smaller, very personal one. The best in business often do the unpredictable. They don’t make films with commercial success or fame or fortune foremost in their minds. They just take on projects which move them and stories that interest them. This aptly describes Cuaron’s latest film, Roma, an ode to the Mexico City of his childhood and the women who raised him.
Set in Mexico City in the early 70s, it is a rather calm, but layered tale of a maid who works in the household of an upper middle class family. We get to see a year in the life of the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio – first film). She works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira – The Zone, Complices), the mother and her doctor husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga – first film), Sofia’s mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia – first film) and their four kids – Tono (Diego Cortina Autrey – first film), Paco (Carlos Peralta – first film), Pepe (Marco Graf – El Chango y la Chancia), and Sofi (Daniela Demesa – first film). Another maid named Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia – first film) also works in the house.
Most of Cleo’s life involves her taking care of the kids, serving meals, cleaning, doing laundry, and tending to the family dog. All this does not leave much time for her to have her own life. Though she does manage to occasionally going out with Adela and her boyfriend Ramon (Jose Manuel Guerrero Mendoza – first film) to meet up with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero – from television’s Narcos: Mexico). Cleo’s rather sedate life takes a large turn when she finds out she is pregnant and the father, Fermin, disappears.
Realism is what Cuaron attains here. Filmed in black and white, the film is slow yet emotional. Long takes, wide shots, wonderful cinematography (by Cuaron) all contribute to the building of emotion. He demonstrates his ability to tell a story through visuals rather than dialogue.
Powerful because it is so personal. Cuaron is drawing from his own life to portray the Mexico of the 1970s he remembers. Filled with social hierarchy and political unrest. Through his images he builds a world in which the inequalities between different social strata in Mexico is obvious. Plain as the darker skin of the maids in contrast with the whiteness of the well off family they work for. Words do not need to be used. It is also obvious, due to his characters, what Cuaron thinks of men in this world in comparison to women. Fermin and Antonio are terrible. The women try to carry on cleaning up the messes the men have left behind. All this is quite subtle, but there if you care to think about it.
Hard to pin down because he floats in between genres and subjects, Cuaron demonstrates himself once again to be one of the best directors making films today. Whatever style of film he decides to do he is good at. Showing great range, here he tells a tale which is both narrow and wide at the same time. He also manages to disguise the emotions involved. Nothing is predictable and as such, the impact they have is deeper. For instance, I have never been more moved by a forest fire in my life.
The characters, portrayed by a cast made up largely of first time actors, are so realistic. Not cluttered with tons of dialogue this cast wrings all the emotion out of the story, penned by Cuaron, with their eyes and bodies. Their realistic portrayals really draw you into their lives. Grounds the film. Lead actress Yalitza Aparicio turns in one of the best performances by an actress this year.
This is not the type of film which will appeal to a large audience. Critics will love it. Film buffs will as well. Many will find it long and pretentious. It just does not have that commercial appeal that will put butts into the theatre seats. Which is a shame because it is a film that demonstrates all that the medium is capable of. Magic involved. Stunning visuals. Note perfect acting. Full of attention paid to detail and symbolism. Not an easy watch, but a totally fulfilling one. One of the top films of 2018.