Roma review: Alfonso Cuaron's new drama is one of the best films of the year

The Mexican filmmaker makes even the most banal moments seem lyrical in this brilliantly observed piece of filmmaking 

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 22 January 2019 15:48
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Roma Offical Trailer 2

This review was first published on 15 December 2018

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón; Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero. Cert 15, 135 mins

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is one of the films of the year, brilliantly observed and with an intense sense of yearning, lyricism and emotional truthfulness running through its every frame. Cuarón not only wrote, produced and directed the film (which is based on his own childhood) but he shot it too, in very evocative black and white.

Cuarón’s most recent feature was the mindblowing sci-fi film Gravity. Roma couldn’t be more different and yet Cuarón here is able to make even the most banal moments seem lyrical. The setting is Mexico in the early 1970s. The main character is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid working for a well-off middle class family.

We are drawn entirely into the world of Cleo, a character based directly on the housekeeper who worked for Cuarón’s parents. She is both an insider, regarded by the kids as part of the family, and someone always on the outside. She has to do the cleaning, the carrying, the cooking. She is both cherished and taken absolutely for granted. Cuarón’s portrait of the middle class household is both affectionate and occasionally barbed and satirical. They think nothing of getting even pregnant maids to shift their luggage for them and can be very high-handed.

In the course of the film, both Cleo and the family experience extreme upheaval. She has to deal with the consequences of a short-lived affair. Her boss Sofia’s marriage is crumbling. However, the most resonant scenes here aren’t the family rows or scenes of Cleo confronting her errant boyfriend but the quieter moments. You can’t help but marvel at the minutely detailed production design and at Cuarón’s ability to cram huge amounts of visual information into what might initially seem like everyday incidents. He will show Cleo at the cinema (incongruously watching British comedy star Terry-Thomas in a European war movie) and we will be able to see not just the incidents on the movie screen but all the hundreds of other spectators in perfect focus – with the maid a forlorn figure in the middle of the crowd.

There is a moment similar to the spilling of the wine at the wedding in The Deer Hunter in which Cleo seems inadvertently to be bringing bad luck on herself – but superstition and religion play minimal roles here.

Cuarón extracts humour from unlikely sources. For example, it is a test of Sofia and her husband’s driving skills to navigate their enormous Ford Galaxy through the narrow alleyway. They tend to move very slowly but, because they are either drunk or distraught, they always seem to scrape the sides of the vehicle. The comedy lies in the sheer inevitability of them damaging the paintwork or bashing the mirror – or driving straight into the mounds of dog poop lying on the ground. Cuarón knows too just how to make kids fighting over a game of Scalextric seem funny and how to squeeze the humour out of a scene of a kid playing dead or of exercise fanatics standing on one leg.

Roma makes us aware of the turbulence outside the family’s home. Students are protesting. Police violence is never far away. We hear references to land disputes, poisonings and even to killings. The ructions aren’t just political. At one stage, Cleo is caught up in an earthquake while visiting the hospital. She remains the same impassive, kindly presence. Only very late on does she give vent to the emotions she has kept buttoned up for so long.

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The director has gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate the Mexico of the period. Everything – from the cars to the Mexico World Cup 1970 posters, from the furniture to the haircuts and clothes – feels just right. Roma (the name refers to the neighbourhood where the family lives) never falls prey to false sentimentality. The occasional harshness of its representation of the lost world of Cuarón’s childhood only adds to its resonance.

Roma is available on Netflix now

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