On a drab tiled floor, a bucket of mop-water is sloshed down a drain; in a moment of unexpected repose, the puddle reflects a window on the world above as a plane glides overhead, visualising a dichotomy between a world of wealthy jetsetters and the more sedate world of the earthbound and the domestic. The opening sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s eighth feature and Netflix collaboration, Roma, is an intriguing statement of intent from a director who has frequently favoured filmic representations of the sky-high and the fantastical in blockbusters such as the franchise watermark Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Brexit-premonition Children of Men, and the film that crushed your childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Gravity, for which Cuarón won his first Oscar for Directing. Yet Cuarón has once again defied Hollywood convention, walking away from presumably any number of offers to helm a superhero tentpole, and taking five years to craft an intensely personal and lyrical work that hearkens back to the empathy, setting and themes of Cuarón’s earlier films Sólo con Tu Pareja and Y Tu Mamá También, and which transfers the grandiose, worldly scale of his previous features inwards to the no-less expansive scale of the soul.
Shot in immaculate black-and-white and presented in Spanish and Mixteco, the semi-autobiographical film is inspired by Cuarón’s own upbringing and covers the years 1970 – 1971 in an affluent apartment compound in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a nanny and housekeeper in the home of Dr Antonio, his wife Sofia and their four young children. Amidst the sanctity of Cleo’s daily cleaning and childminding rituals, she discovers that she is pregnant and that concurrently, Antonio’s business trips have been a ruse to conceal an affair. The contrasting fortunes of Cleo and Sofia, with one family beginning and the other fracturing, is thrown into relief by the broiling political tension in Mexico City and a seemingly preordained catalogue of woes, heartbreak, and opportunities for redemption.
The return to the setting of his hometown Mexico City for the first time since 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También for an autobiographically-inflected feature and the bawdy, erotic aura of the former film might have hinted that Roma was to be Cuarón’s personal homage to Federico Fellini’s equally biographical and lewd Amarcord. Additionally, the subject matter of a relationship between a maid and the affluent family who employ her has the ring of Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey. But these allusions do not come to fruition in Roma, described by its architect as a restrained yet intimate love letter to the women who raised him. The film unequivocally celebrates the nobility of female forces and influences in a person’s life, as well as the powerful bond fostered by an unconventional nuclear family, with Cuarón taking great pains to represent the palpable, authentic love between Cleo and the children under her wing. Early in the film, Cleo kneels down by the edge of the sofa in the family living room, engrossed by the sitcom on TV, and gently assimilates into the family unit whilst embracing youngest son Paco in one of many tenderly etched moments of characterisation.
Significantly, in spite of the semi-autobiographical project underlying the film, Roma does not convey a traditional coming-of-age perspective as experienced by its young, impressionable child characters or even Cleo herself. There are no vital life lessons imparted, there is no omniscient narration – often Cuarón, serving as his own Director of Photography, seems to be striving for an air of objective distance. The camera is most often static, fixed to one spot and moving only to pan right or left, achieving a panoramic yet detachedly observational style, far removed from his bravura single handheld take of the car ambush sequence in Children of Men, or the breathless opening scene of the space shuttle destruction in Gravity. Nevertheless, Roma’s perspective arguably enhances the sense of selflessness involved in the sacrifices made by the female characters and Cleo especially – without belabouring the point of cause and effect in a young person’s upbringing, Cuarón conveys an almost routine and implicit type of valour in the women who shaped his early life. Nowhere is this better realised than in a scene towards the conclusion of the film wherein Sofia, the children, and Cleo have absconded to the beach. As the two middle children frolic in the ocean, a deceptively simple dolly shot tracks Cleo initially walking away to tend to the youngest, Paco, before suddenly running back into the water to rescue the other children who are drowning in a strong riptide current, despite her inability to swim. Carrying the children onto the shoreline, the nuclear family huddle together with all of the members affirming their love for Cleo in gratitude for her selfless devotion. This silhouetted image, emblazoned on the film’s poster, powerfully symbolises Cuarón’s thesis that the self-sacrificing love of the female forces in our early lives and their intuition towards altruism can prove an influential model to follow.
Indeed, Cuarón’s heartfelt sympathy for aspects of the female experience – typified in Sofia’s scathing line of dialogue, ‘We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone’ – is complemented by his respectful and patient camera movements; a complication in the delivery of Cleo’s baby is represented in a static and dignified side-on view that allows the ensuing birth to uncompromisingly seize our attention. Additionally, Cuarón adorns the passion that he invests in Roma’s female characters with lovingly rendered monochrome photography. Black-and-white is predominately considered in terms of its accentuation of shadows and darkness, epitomised in the chiaroscuro mode of lighting that is common to film noir. In Roma, however, black-and-white is instead deployed to emphasise sunlight and brightness, perhaps as a meta-comment on the enterprise of Cuarón fondly reminiscing on and autobiographically re-enacting his early life, but which can also be interpreted as being indicative of the vibrancy of Cleo’s pure love.