Alfonso Cuarón is a rarity. A director with barely a blemish on his filmography – which now spans more than two decades. Having first leapt onto the scene seventeen years ago with the exceptional Y Tu Mamá También, which also helped to launch the careers of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, Cuarón now returns to his homeland with Roma – an immersive, poetic study in class, womanhood, and family set against the political turmoil of Mexico in the seventies. In Cuarón’s last outing, 2013’s Gravity, he couldn’t have taken us further from the earth – in Roma, we couldn’t be closer to it and all its inhabitants. We are hurtled directly into the throes of a frantic Mexico City, one which appears to be undergoing a struggle with its identity at this time, and given a view through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio); a housekeeper to a middle-class family and the beating heart of this simple, yet sprawling, tale.
Roma is not the kind of film in which a great deal happens. Rather, while major events do indeed take place throughout its two hour runtime, they are treated as another of life’s incidents to be expected – whether they are deeply tragic or not. Cuarón’s focus begins with and remains on Cleo for the entirety of Roma, for this is not a story of tragedy but of how a woman deals with it, and of how life cannot stop for the sake of it. Huge, unfathomable moments which would come to shape Mexico’s history – such as the Corpus Christi massacre of student protestors in 1971 – do occur in Roma, but they are woven into the fabric of Cleo’s daily life. What begins as a search for a cot in a furniture store is soon punctured by an onslaught of violence, which does not, cannot, stop Cleo’s world from turning but which she must carry with her nonetheless. During this particular act of brutality, which spills into every corner of Cuarón’s monochrome frame, Cleo is catapulted into a kind of trauma that should be given uninterrupted time to heal. Instead, we find her preparing breakfast for the children of her employer no more than a few days afterwards. And yet, Cuarón offers us more than just a glimpse at compassion, despite the nature of the world around Cleo. While life continues onwards, devoid of any sort of noise around personal tragedy – a concept which is made literal in the total lack of score in Roma – moments of overwhelming tenderness and empathy come, with no fanfare, and in no grand gesture. One such moment arrives between Cleo and the family she works for amidst a barrage of crashing waves and can barely be heard against the chaos of the sea. This, Cuarón makes clear, is the entire point of his film; salvation does not often come in sweeping acts but is found, instead, in the tiniest moments of daily life. Salvation arrives in whispered words of comfort that last no more than a few seconds – Cleo, at least, knows this.
The beauty of Roma lies in the understated; from the moments of purity shared between Cleo and the children she cares for, such as when she and the youngest of the family decide to lay on their backs and simply play dead against Cuarón’s glorious black and white backdrop, to Aparicio’s entire performance. As Cleo, she is nuanced and stoic – rarely, in fact, does she say much but her every expression feels so honest, and so genuine, that she hardly needs to. Aparicio brings to Cleo a warmth so great that it seeps through into her physicality, seen in every slight smile that appears when in the presence of the children so beloved to her, and in every haunted glance that later come to pass across her face. Aparicio’s work is just extraordinary – the overwhelming emotion she evokes from such subtlety and quietness is nothing short of miraculous. Roma belongs to her, and to all the women that Cuarón drew his inspiration for her from, and it is this which makes it a testament to the sacrifices made by women for the sake of others.
Roma is both a mighty epic, grand in its wide scope, and an intimate, deeply personal portrayal of the Mexico that Cuarón knew as a child. Its cinematography may be ambitious, it may be currently unparalleled in its scale this year so far, but its world is contained – often, it feels as though Cuarón has allowed us to slip into the most private setting possible, teeming with rawness at every corner, by engulfing us with scenery so huge, and so breath-taking, that we hardly even notice we are simply watching daily life unfold. This is filmmaking at its very best; a piece so lovingly detailed that even the most mundane of tasks appear beautiful, and so honest that it almost feels like an intrusion on a life at times. Authentic and understated in its approach, Roma demands to be seen by anyone in search of true compassion in film.
By Hannah Ryan