With little fanfare, and certainly no warning, Roma draws you in, lulls you, charms you and thoroughly destroys you. This is the first Spanish-language film by Alfonso Cuarón since 2001 and is without question the most personal the Mexican director has ever made. A stunning recreation of Cuarón own childhood, Roma is quietly mesmerising and profoundly affecting.
In spite of the wild divergences in plot that separate Cuarón’s most recent films, each one is unmistakably the work of his auteurist vision. Those prolonged, patient takes, that eye for the cinematic and ear for the value of an all encompassing soundscape. To this end, Roma opens with the birds-eye view of a paved floor, on which soapy water is lathered and flows in ebbs like the tidal waves on the beach that will arrive later in the film. There is no music but nature sings and the thrum of a plane, reflected in the water, forebodes the graceful pan up that is about to occur. It is the consistency of Cuarón’s artistic motifs that allows critics to join the dots between a major space thriller and low budget, neorealist drama without raising an eyebrow at the absurdity of such a comparison. By all accounts, most directors work in the opposite financial direction; and yet, evidently, Cuarón is not most directors.
Set in the titular district of Mexico City and shot largely in panning wide shots, Roma is less concerned with narrative drive than simple epochal presentation. It is as though Cuarón has opened up and framed sequential transient moments, each within the years 1970 and ’71, and is content merely to watch and wait. Regardless of whether anything actually happens, there is deep pleasure in the mere act of observation. As it happens, a great deal is offered for the eye’s consumption throughout the film, predominantly via the painstaking devotion of its director toward filling his shots with cornucopias of period detail. Cuarón is said to have transported the furniture of his own childhood home onto these sets in his will for dazzling era recreation. Crisp black and white cinematography, also by Cuarón, does to heighten a memorial aesthetic, whilst the film’s emotional ties to the past prove increasingly infectious.
Yalitza Aparicio is the film’s primary surrogate as Cléo, the beloved housemaid of Sofia, Antonio and their four children. Named in honour of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, Cléo endears quickly but occupies a precarious position in the family, being beloved as one of their own and yet belittled for leaving the lights on. When a date with the cousin of her fellow maid’s boyfriend leads to a baby bump three months down the line, Cléo is surprised to find herself supported wholeheartedly by Sofia, who is herself a witness to the disintegration of her marriage. All this unfolds against the backdrop of a Mexico on the brink of intense change. The film’s most distressing sequence erupts from the contemporary Corpus Christi Massacre but more nuanced period nods can be found throughout.
Chiefly, Roma is concerned with parallels, contrasts and the slotting of the micro within the macrocosmic. Cuarón often frames Cléo as one in a mass, be that in the market, protest or even in Sofia’s home. We search for her but fully appreciate that any one of those around could easily be the film’s focus. It’s a brilliant, intensely thought provoking conceit and exquisitely executed to convey the nature of scale. In the eye of the storm, nothing else matters; from a distance, that same storm seems minute against the enormity of ordinary life. Almost every shot in the film is delivered through wide, panoptic frames, designed to infer objectivity and encourage a total reading. It is on doing just so that one can come close to appreciate just how much effort has been poured into the production re-creation of Cuarón’s memories.
There is more to be written of Roma that a mere review could ever cover and perhaps one day critics may come close. For now, Cuarón’s effort can be said to have paid off. This is a visual pleasure and conceptual miracle.