Film review | Roma: The vibrating truth at the periphery

Alfonso Cuarón scores an understated triumph with this quiet, autobiographical masterpiece that tells an intimate family story against the turbulent backdrop of 1970s Mexico

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has always been a master of the periphery, which is perhaps why Gravity (2013), his previous film prior to the slow-burning, autobiographical and heartfelt Roma felt like something of a let-down. Plucking Sandra Bullock and George Clooney from the vibrant earth and placing them into deep space in a bid to survive – with Bullock’s character also being made to confront personal demons along the way – failed to play to the strengths of this great filmmaker, whose melding of the personal and political is allowed to come to the fore beautifully when he places himself in the midst of the heavy torrent of human life.

Luckily, his heavily awards-touted new film, Roma, once again places him on this richer and more germane path, bolstering sensitive approach to storytelling with an unprecedented autobiographical provenance.

Like a delicately unravelling tapestry and shot in gorgeous black and white, the film unspools the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young housekeeper from the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, in 1970. Together with Adela (Nancy García), she tends to the needs of a middle-class family, headed by Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a household completed by four children – Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa), Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey) and Paco (Carlos Peralta) –and their grandmother, Teresa (Verónica García).

What begins as an academic trip for Antonio turns out to be the first stretch of a long-burning separation for the couple, with simmering tensions finally coming to the fore. But for all the largely conventional family drama happening around her, this remains Cleo’s story, and it is executed with the kind of grace and effortlessness that does not skimp on emotional comeuppance, but only offers it up when it is fully earned.  In other words, Roma is a mature and heartfelt work from an accomplished filmmaker, one who has emerged from his screwball sex-comedy roots (Y Tu Mamá También), triumphantly pulled off one of the best high concept science fiction films in recent years (Children of Men) and swooped in to deliver the most dramatically accomplished installment of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban) before regular programming was – unfortunately – resumed.

And now, he truly digs deep to offer a slice of cinema with no frills, but that has absolutely everything it needs. From a leisurely opening shot that reflects the sky through pooling splashes of water as Cleo polishes her employer’s drive as the credits roll, we know we’re in for storytelling that commands our attention by simply being good at what it does – with a restraint and focus that never devolves into dullness.

In fact, the black and white palette, which in lesser hands would come across as a self-conscious flourish, here feels like a humbling move that is done to focus our attention on the story and –even more crucially – the characters within it. Shot by Cuarón himself as he pulls the triple-duty of screenwriter-director-cinematographer, the film reins in what could have been a brightly-lit, vibrant and dramatically in-yer-face historical re-tread of a crucial period in Mexico’s history, never letting us divert our gaze from Cleo’s own.

Cuarón adopted a similar approach in Children of Men, where he immersed us into a dystopian near-future world plunged into a fertility crisis, but through the limited gaze of Clive Owen’s cynical protagonist, Theo. With a name that carries as many syllables but whose uncomplicated worldview couldn’t be further away from Theo’s, Cleo – played with unassuming authenticity by a debuting Aparicio – is a calm centre of gravity, her naivety and bewilderment an organic reference point from which to spin this story. A more conventional narrative would have relegated her to the sidelines, but here she takes centre stage despite fate shuffling her to its edges.  

The verdict

An autobiographical story that somehow manages to feel both intimate and massive, Alfonso Cuarón’s trip down memory lane is a masterful feat of empathy and historical reckoning. In a world where repressive governments insist on barring entry to outsiders, and where a toxic political discourse based on constricting identity politics chokes the global conversation, Roma feels like a welcome breath of intimate and complex humanity.  

Roma is currently streaming on Netflix.