The way Alfonso Cuaron crafts details of his canvas in his latest film Roma – details seemingly unrelated to the plot, but richly descriptive of a time, a street, a home in which the plot unfolds – is reminiscent of those in Satyajit Ray’s mid-career films like Charulata (1964). Roma’s language is even closer to the works of the great Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and ’50s such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.
Like them, Cuaron is interested in the working class, their struggles – simultaneously mundane and extraordinary – and uses non-professional actors. Like Ray, who was heavily inspired by the neo-realists, Cuaron builds an emotional universe with Lego-like precision in the details and a mostly static camera, as if observing life in minutiae. Roma is being streamed on Netflix.
The immediate exteriors of the family home in which the protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a domestic help has passers-by such as a local wedding band’s trumpet-heavy procession and a casual instrumentalist on a bicycle. The interiors have corners and objects that repeatedly appear in scenes, like leaky faucets and soapy sinks. The camera moves inside the home along with Cleo, taking us into the action, but without frenetic, home-video kind of intrusiveness. The camera isn’t recording as much as it is observing in pallid black-and-white. Cuaron, who has previously directed Yu Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), is also the cinematographer.
Roma is a film of striking cinematic beauty; it is also a painstaking memory-making project. Cuaron dedicates the film to the nanny he grew up with in Mexico, and the film is a recreation of his childhood home and his family, with his lens on Mexico of the 1970s, with its class structures and social unrest. He recreates the Corpus Christi massacre, when around 120 people were killed by the military during a student demonstration, as a backdrop to build up the film’s most intensely tragic scene.
Cleo is a workhorse, constantly on the move, fixing, cleaning, serving. A tenacious reserve foils her emotional vulnerability. We don’t hear her speak much, but we see her do a lot – even perfecting a difficult martial arts pose with ease. She has an equipoise that can match that of martial arts artistes who practise with military devotion, but nobody notices her. She works in the family of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and four children. She is tenderly maternal with the children, and her deep bond with the family are largely because of them.
But there’s an understated bond and empathy between Sofia and Cleo, both lonely but in different ways. Roma is about both women, although Cuaron is much more concerned with Cleo. Sofia’s marriage is souring, while Cleo is on a sour romantic path herself, but Cleo has something to look forward to despite the sorrow of separation from her lover, mother and the village which she has left behind. The cast, including the children, is impressively immersive in their roles. Aparicio plays the film’s soul wonderfully, without showing off any acting tricks. A hospital scene in which her character faces the darkest moment of her life is one of the saddest cinematic moments ever – if you manage to keep your tears in and don’t get a lumpy throat, it’s probably time to see a psychotherapist.
Cuaron is masterly in building up a climax without any plot virtuosities or overt stylish broad brushes. It is a climax of the emotional life of his characters, largely Cleo. Can she overcome the sorrow of loss, and reconcile to a life which doesn’t change, in which she continues to take care of her employers? Can just love empower and uplift her? Without any obvious celebration or condemnation of political affiliations, Cuaron has clear-sighted, morally unambiguous view on Mexico’s class structures and armed oppression.
Roma is Netflix’s best film production so far. It has been said numerous times already, and I’d say it again, Roma is 2018’s best movie and a filmmaking milestone in general. It is a soaring validation of our age that a film like Roma can be watched everywhere in the world, at any time.