We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.
No film I've seen in 2018 expresses the idea of our common humanity more powerfully and beautifully than Roma. In it director Alfonso Cuaron intricately recreates events from his childhood in Mexico City, focusing on a character who in other dramas might easily have been sidelined as a bit-player - his family's domestic servant (for purposes of the drama named Cleo). Despite the movie's vast urban and rural backdrops, it's ultimately all about her - and yet through her it's about so much more.
The story begins in 1970 on a backdrop of escalating political tension in Mexico. Cleo acts as both maid and default nanny for a well-to-do family, presided over by matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira). An indigenous Mexican girl, Cleo exists in a strange middle ground - almost part of the family and adored by all four lively children, but still the one who sweeps up dog mess and has her meals in cramped employees' quarters. She's divided by class, race and economics from the mistress of the house; yet within the year covered by the film, both their lives are thrown into crises of marked similarity - events that will act as a litmus test of Cleo's true position within the family unit.
Written as well as directed by Cuaron, Roma is manifestly a labour of love. It was shot on location in and around Mexico City where the real-life events took place, the early 1970s painstakingly recreated where necessary (Cuaron has commented in interview how certain places struck him as virtually unchanged). The look of the film is striking from the opening frames - everything etched in pristine black and white using 70mm, the same panoramic format employed in epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dunkirk. The result is stunning, whether in the depictions of hiving streets and slums and rural vistas, or in close-ups of a scuttling lizard and of toy cars zipping around a Scalextric track. Every mundane detail is soaked up by the camera and reproduced as something beautiful or at least striking, including the film's occasional images of shocking horror.
Cuaron's Hollywood years have prepared him well for the telling of this hyper-personal tale. His slow pans let us absorb the intricacies of each environment at our leisure. His static shots observe whole mini-dramas as they unfold, sometimes in near silence (like one unforgettable extended moment between two characters in a cinema or another where Cleo stares over woodlands from a country retreat). And when his camera tracks a character, it tracks daringly long, recalling the astonishing screen choreography he demonstrated in Children of Men. Everything his camera does is an unshowy but noteworthy achievement.
Cleo's story unfolds on a background of political upheaval and activism - there are some wildly impressive set-pieces - yet it remains her intimate tale at all points. In the lead role is first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, delivering a performance that proves quietly brilliant, and touching to the point of heartbreak. Most of the cast are novice actors (de Tavira is one of the exceptions as the elegant Sofia), but they are cannily chosen, provides this factually-based story with a raw authenticity.
Let me add - Roma is a slow-burn. It's never less than exquisitely crafted and visually gorgeous, but the dramatic fireworks are infrequent and the sense of its story is not quickly apparent. Expect to spend proper time getting to know Cleo and her wealthy surrogate family, before you realise how tightly the emotional hooks have dug. This is an immersion in a specific time and place so vivid in sight and sound that you can almost smell it too. It's also a powerfully universal story - of injustice and tragedy, but also of love and hope.
Gut Reaction: Utter absorption, not wanting to miss a single visual detail - even when it hurt to watch.
Where Are the Women?: Cuaron loves the women in his films, never more so than in this one. De Tavira is terrific as Sofia, but this is chiefly Cleo's story - and Aparicio portrays her with a tender and painful sense of truth.
Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. A masterful piece of film-making, the full genius of which only becomes apparent by the end. Themes of race, class, gender and political change are all addressed - but through the lens of a heartrending personal tale. Just superb.