Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy García García
Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family’s maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
It has been apparent for quite some time now that Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most gifted directors currently working. Personally, I’ve been impressed with his previous films such as Children of Men and Gravity (which won him the Oscar for Best Director), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban remains one of my favorites from that series. His technical skills are always on display, but I’ve often felt that the stories in his films have not quite measured up to the incredible visual power he commands as a director. With Roma, Cuarón has created a story that elevates the film’s technical achievements, and I think it is instantly a career-defining work for this great director.
Cuarón wrote and directed this film, and he also worked as the film’s cinematographer. One of the most powerful decisions he makes as the film begins is to refrain from giving us much in the way of character details and backstory for our main character – Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). We can see that she works as a maid for a family living in Mexico City. Though we may not be able to place the exact timeframe upfront, we quickly surmise that the story takes place in the 1970s. Other than that, we don’t know much at the beginning of the film, and I think that serves the story well as it begins to unfold for reasons I will discuss later on.
The film is shot in beautiful black and white imagery, and it opens with a visually-stunning credits sequence played over water repeatedly lapping on a floor. We see the reflection of an opening above and a large jet flying overhead. The jet image will be repeated at various points in the film and serves the underlying theme of different socioeconomic stratospheres being present in one place. The camera then pans to show Cleo going about her daily work. Cuarón utilizes camera pans throughout the film as a way for us to “survey” each scene rather than simply watch passively.
Cleo works as a maid for Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and her husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) along with their four children and Sofía’s mother, Teresa (Verónica García). Another maid named Adela (Nancy García García) works in the household too. Cleo and Adela are cordial with the family, but the relationship does not seem to be much deeper than a professional one. Cleo and Adela do the cooking and the cleaning, and then they go to their own personal lives. On their own time, they enjoy going to the movies with their boyfriends. Cleo is dating a man named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and Adela is with Ramón (Jose Manuel Guerrero Mendoza). There is a palpable detachment between Fermin and Cleo. In one scene, Fermin seems more interested in his martial arts skills than in Cleo. Something occurs in their relationship that exacerbates this detachment and we watch as Cleo navigates the aftermath. She confides in Sofía, but her employer is undergoing relational stressors of her own. Even so, Sofía quickly takes action in providing Cleo the support she needs.
The film does a profound job of depicting this slice of life. In that regard, it reminded me of Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project for how it empathically depicts the life of its characters. We see their lives in a vivid way. The film allows space in scenes for us to consider what the characters are thinking and feeling. One way Cuarón accomplishes this is through multiple close-ups that linger on the characters’ faces – especially Cleo. It reminded me of how Ingmar Bergman said that the face was the greatest cinematic landscape for its ability to evoke emotion and feeling. Cuarón lets Cleo’s face tell us so much.
Of course, there is another person who deserves credit for that – lead actress Yalitza Aparicio. She gives what is in my opinion one of the finest performances of the year as Cleo. She evokes so much in those close-ups that we feel that we know Cleo – not just as a character, but as a human being. The performance is so well-rounded whether the scene is heavily emotional or calls for a more muted approach.
Her performance and Cuarón’s handling of it are the reasons that the film’s opening provides such a perfect execution of what the story calls for. Since we don’t know much about Cleo at the beginning, we are faced with a unique choice, whether we realize it or not. We often relate to and care about characters based upon what we know about them since this allows us to find common ground with our own experience. But this film calls us to care about Cleo because she is a human being. The film drops us into the story and lets us pick up the contextual clues as we go. But from the very beginning, the camera surveys Cleo’s life with empathy, and we should do the same.
Cuarón’s cinematography is absolutely astounding. There are images in this film that will take your breath away. This film is the work on an artist in complete control of the medium and their own artistic vision.
I won’t spoil the film’s plot, but suffice it to say that the ending packs an emotional punch. We see how the characters have grown and changed (specifically in regards to Cleo’s relationship to Sofía and her children), and the closing shot even reflects the opening shot in a way that re-contextualizes what has come before it.
I think this is the finest film of the year and a monumental achievement. From the acting to the direction to the cinematography, every element of the film is working on all cylinders. It will run the gamut of your emotions, and it will broaden your visual scope. It is a powerful film in every sense of the word. Whether you have the ability to see this film on the big screen or whether you stream it on Netflix, this is a film that you absolutely must see. It is simply that good.
Overall Grade: A+
Hear our podcast review on Episode 303: