A filmmaker at the top of his craft. An autobiographical narrative featuring the people, language, and locales of his homeland, all captured in mesmerising black-and-white cinematography. A simple yet powerful familial story where ordinary moments somehow become entirely extraordinary. An ineffaceable homage to Mexico City in the 1970s. This is Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma, one of the year’s most stunning achievements in cinema.
When crafted by an expert, the simplest tales often become the most powerful and affecting. This rings especially true of Cuarón’s latest masterwork. There’s little grandeur here. In its place is a deeply personal and captivatingly intimate portrayal of common civilians so often lost in the background. This is a beautiful character study, gifting us the opportunity to take a glimpse at the life and times of those we rarely consider.
Beginning with an innocuous but completely hypnotic close-up shot of a stone driveway being washed by soapy water with a perfectly-timed aeroplane flying overhead in the reflection. With this one shot, Cuarón seemingly instantly announces every single frame of Roma you’re about to witness has been meticulously crafted by a master at work. As the camera rises, we see the woman washing the driveway is sweet-natured and shy Cleo (non-professional actress Yalitza Aparicio, in a sublime debut performance), a housemaid for an affluent family in Mexico City.
Cleo and fellow housekeeper Adela (Nancy Garcia) are tasked with looking after beleaguered family matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her often-absent husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), their four young rambunctious children, and the family dog, Borras, known for leaving his droppings strewn all over the driveway, hence the soapy water wash. More than just a housekeeper, Cleo is essentially a member of the family, with a deep love for the children in her care.
She cooks. She cleans. She picks up after everybody. Cleo is present when she needs to be and absent when not required. The meek and mild maid wants to simply do her duties and stay out of the family’s business. But even she can’t escape the drama of Antonio’s sudden departure, leaving his wife and children behind for his unseen mistress. Seeking some brief escape, Cleo accepts the advances of Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts loving brute who she can’t help but fall for.
But their brief love affair leads to an unexpected pregnancy, which Fermín appears to welcome before promptly vanishing, literally moments later. With nowhere else to turn, Cleo has no choice but to inform Sofia, who, despite her own mounting personal problems, warmly offers to help with the pregnancy and take care of anything Cleo may need. As the film continues, we bear witness to the development of a new family while another is entirely falling to pieces.
Filmed by Cuarón himself, Roma is a visual delight, with some of most sumptuous and gorgeous black-and-white photography you will ever see. While the film will be released later in the year on your television via Netflix, this is a film which demands to be seen on the big screen. Almost devoid of close-ups, Cuarón consistently keeps his audience at a distance, instilling the film with an almost voyeuristic quality. Often relying on the use of slow pans, Cuarón presents the idea that the perfectly choreographed events in his film are related, with a consistent flow permeating throughout his entire work.
By keeping our gaze wide, we are able to see every detail of the world in which Cuarón has placed his characters. There’s naturally always a focal point (usually Cleo), but it’s consistently backgrounded by well-orchestrated chaotic action that would have taken expert precision to manufacture. It’s this meticulous work that is Cuarón’s masterful calling card. There’s so often so much to take in with each sequence, you’ll be begging for a second viewing almost immediately.
Existing as the ultimate of cinematic slow burns, Roma wisely takes it’s time to arrive at its final destination. Seemingly mundane events are given extreme focus. Cuarón is concerned with capturing everyday life where nothing much “happens.” But, like in real life, every so often, a major moment occurs that completely takes your breath away. Cuarón deftly dots these events throughout the narrative, arriving with no notice and little time for an audience to prepare or adjust.
A forest wildfire breaks out on New Year’s Eve. A brief but frightening earthquake rocks Mexico City. A recreation of the Corpus Christi massacre, which Cleo becomes caught up in, is brutally unsettling to behold. A playful day at the beach turns into utter chaos, captured in a stunning single-take sequence synonymous with Cuarón’s past work. But nothing compares to one sequence of unbearable grief, which I dare not spoil. It’s a moment that will hit you like few others this year.
Using his childhood as the basis for his screenplay, Cuarón is clearly paying deep tribute to the women who raised him and shaped his life. Roma is a love letter to the strength of females, and Cuarón makes this their story as much as his own. Cleo is the emotional heart of this piece, which is an insight into the impact she had on the filmmaker. Outside of a Jennifer Lopez rom-com, it’s rare to see a film give its primary narrative focus to a maid. But Cleo was more than just a housekeeper. She was an extraordinary woman who practically demands her tale be told and seen.
Cuarón’s choice of casting a non-professional as his leading lady is downright madness, but in Aparicio, he’s discovered a genuine talent you cannot take your eyes off. While she rarely speaks, her emotions and inner monologue are constantly on display. Even devoid of dialogue, there’s a consistent acute sense of everything Cleo is feeling, which is remarkable from a performer in her film debut. When Cleo is required to respond to several devastating events she’s apart of, Aparicio’s performance truly comes to life, often leaving you emotionally wrought but still thoroughly impressed. The Best Actress race is already becoming overcrowded, but Aparicio must be part of the conversation.
It’s no exaggeration to call practically every frame of Roma a moment of genuine beauty. While that beauty may often be elicited from the strangest of places, Cuarón knows how to make this film shine as only he could. Every single moment has been considered with ample care. Nothing here happens by chance. Working as director, producer, writer, cinematographer, and editor, Cuarón has a hand in crafting every aspect of this film. It’s a personal work of the highest order.
Rarely do we critics allow ourselves to call a film a work of art, but that’s the only turn of phrase for something as unforgettable and astounding as Roma. It’s the kind of film that reminds us why we love the art form that is cinema. A moment we only get once or twice a year, if at all. A film that will leave you in a delirium of wonder and delight at what you’ve just experienced. An absolute cinematic masterpiece. Period.