Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has moved up the ladder from small, acclaimed films (Y Tu Mamá También, which made a star out of Gael García Bernal) to big-budget Hollywood box-office bonanzas (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), winning an Oscar for Gravity and collecting critical kudos along the way. But he has never forgotten or abandoned his roots, and in the exquisite, semi-autobiographical Roma, the surprise hit on the 2018 film-festival circuit, he returns to tell the story of two women from distinctly different cultural, social, and financial backgrounds whose lives are inextricably intertwined in a year of turmoil and tragedy. It is humane, beautifully shot in 65 mm and glorious black and white, full of keen observations, intimate details and nuanced performances. I was hypnotized and drawn in by the skill and heart of everyone involved.
Set in the 1970s, when Cuarón was a boy, and filmed in the upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood called Roma, where he grew up, the film tells the compelling story of an impoverished maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works as a live-in housekeeper and nanny for a doctor, his wife and their children.
Without realizing it, the entire family depends on Cleo for everything, but takes her for granted, and rarely thanks her for anything. The camera follows her through her dreary daily chores, humoring the children, peeling vegetables for the cook, running errands, and hosing the never-ending piles of dog feces deposited by the lazy family pet. On her day off she eats tacos, goes to the movies and sleeps with her boyfriend, who shows little interest when she tells him she is pregnant.
Meanwhile, the lady of the house, a spoiled and careless time-waster named Sofia (Marina de Tavira) ignores her husband once too often and he deserts her for a phony, extended “business trip” with his new girlfriend and never returns, living it up in Acapulco. Simultaneously, while she toils to help her distraught employer and nurse the deeply disturbed children through their misery, Cleo herself is discarded by her own lover to lose her baby alone in a hospital ward for the disenfranchised. Now it is Sofia’s turn to comfort her maid, as both abandoned women face an uncertain future. Although Cleo turns to her boss for advice, she gets no help and finds the one with the money and the respectability is needier than the one with nothing to show for her own dark existence.
Cuarón meticulously recreates a place and period he lived through dramatically, observing the ethnic and class differences of two women forced into a level of co-existence beyond their imagination while filling their anxious hours with distractions—student street riots, overcrowded markets, a weekend Christmas party at a country estate where a forest fire breaks out in the nearby forest and burns too close for safety, and the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. The point of the movie is to show how everyone in Mexico, regardless of gender, class differences or social station, faces the same misfortune. More than two hours of arty black and white might be too much for younger contemporary audiences weaned on Technicolor, but the images of the past that flood Cuarón’s memories are dazzling, and the compassion he shows for the two women who most powerfully shaped his future is both entertaining and elegiac. Roma is the director’s most personal and intimate film, and a great work of art.