Some directors start off making independent films before being scooped up by a major studio and thrust into blockbuster territory, along the way losing the vital ingredients that made their work stand out in the first place. Alfonso Cuarón’s route towards Hollywood begun with a small story about a young girl, before conquering Los Angeles five years ago with 2013’s Gravity. The Mexican director scales things back in Roma to make his most personal and affecting film to date, showing his time in the big leagues has only strengthened, rather than weakened his abilities.
This is an exploration of Cuarón’s memory as much as it is an expansion of his own understanding of his childhood. Shooting in the same locations these events occurred in and using most of the family furniture that existed at the time, it places the story of a live-in housemaid at the centre, recontextualising her life by seeing her as an actual person, rather than someone simply paid to help raise the kids and keep the house tidy.
Roma marks a return to Cuarón's roots not just in terms of the story being told but its stripped back nature which stands in stark contrast to his last multi-million dollar sci-fi escapade. Beginning in 1970, it takes place over the course of one year, intimately observing a middle class household and the family members and servants living and working there. Through their day-to-day lives and personal dramas Cuarón looks at the issues of class, race and social upheaval occurring in Mexico at the time.
Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film sees housemaids Cleo (non-professional actress Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia - Aparico's real life best friend) helping out around the family home serving breakfast, cleaning up and making sure the children are cared for throughout the day. The kids adore Cleo and their parents, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her doctor husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), treat her as a member of the family - except when she’s not, of course.
Anyone expecting an arc involving the harsh treatment of the house help may be surprised as Cuarón shades his characters with far more humanity and nuance than that. We see Cleo unexpectedly fall pregnant before being completely abandoned by the father (possibly one of the coldest exits from her life you could imagine). Sofia and her children are similarly left high and dry by Antonio and unexpectedly the women find an unspoken solace in each other, creating a new family unit in the process.
Shot in beautifully crisp 65mm by Cuarón himself (Emmanuel Lubezki wasn't able to make himself available), it provides intricate detail on the world beyond Cleo’s own life. In one scene she plays dead with one of the children and says she enjoys lying there doing nothing, the camera slowly panning up to show the drudgery of the chores that characterise her daily routine. Cuarón’s slow pans around household interiors and outside locations create a sense of continuity to these people's lives and it's used to powerful effect to highlight the gulf in living standards between rich and poor.
Small pockets of political strife pepper conversations, accompanied by visual clues that point towards the building tension between student factions and the governmental forces. The culmination of this subtext comes together in an extremely powerful section of the film that dramatises some of the events of the Corpus Christi Massacre. At the same time, an emotional crisis erupts within the family set-up and although there is a single moment of contrivance that perhaps it could do without, it isn’t enough to effect the heartbreaking scenes that follow soon after.
The children who take up so much of Cleo and Sofia's time remain largely undefined because this is a portrait of the two women who shaped Cuarón's formative years. Aparicio's complete lack of experience fits the quiet, passive personality of Cleo who has emerged from the shadows of the director's mind to take up a more prominent and permanent position. Not many people are afforded the luxury of exploring their own childhood in such sumptuously photographic terms and Cuarón doesn't let a minute go to waste.
Roma is released in select cinemas on 30 November and available on Netflix from Friday 14 December.