At first, our aims are simple enough. We want to view Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on a big screen, rather than on the iMac that is the closest thing we have to a TV – but finding a cinema in Edinburgh that is actually showing this Netflix Original is problematic. Then we discover that The Filmhouse has managed to obtain it for a few days, so we book seats. Our first attempt to view it is effectively snookered by a badly-timed power cut in our area and it takes some pretty frantic rejigging to get ourselves booked in for the following day, but we manage it; and I’m happy to report that the effort is worthwhile, not least because of the film’s stunning deep focus black and white cinematography (Cuaron acting as his own DP in the absence of regular collaborator, Emanuel Lubezki), but also because the film’s catharsis is so powerful when it finally hits, that I sit in the darkened cinema quietly sobbing away.
This autobiographical story is set in the early seventies in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. It concerns a middle class family and their young, live-in maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who goes placidly through her daily grind of washing clothes, preparing food, and wiping up the seemingly endless mounds of dog poo deposited by the resident mutt, whilst giving as much time and attention as she can, to the family’s four children. For the first twenty minutes or so, this is pretty much all we see and beautifully filmed though it is, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Why all the Oscar buzz? But then, more important issues begin to rear their heads and pretty soon, the film is stretching its muscles and I am totally hooked.
The first incident of note is when the father of the family, university lecturer Pepe (Marco Graf) goes off to a conference in Quebec and decides not to return to his wife and children. In the ensuing uncertainty, his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) struggles to make ends meet and hides the truth from her kids, telling them that Pepe’s work in Canada is taking longer than expected, even though he is occasionally glimpsed running around the city with his latest conquest. Cleo, meanwhile, becomes emotionally entangled with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an aggressive young man who is obsessed with martial arts. It’s clear that the relationship is going precisely nowhere but before that realisation sinks in, Cleo is confronted with an unforeseen problem of her own.
As the film steadily unfolds, so events become ever more dramatic – there’s a New Year’s Eve forest fire, that must be coped with by a collection of (mostly drunk) party guests – a violent student protest that is bloodily overpowered by the local military – and a heart-stopping sequence in a hospital where the mounting drama of a situation spills over into absolute tragedy. Through the escalating chaos, Cleo moves with incredible calm and dignity and Roma is quite clearly a love letter to her, (or rather, to ‘Libo,’ the real life woman who cared for the young Cuaron and his siblings), showing that despite her perilous position as an employee, she is an important member of the family unit, indeed, the very hub around which it operates. Aparicio’s performance is extraordinary. A schoolteacher, who has never acted before, she is quite simply enchanting in the central role and it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
Roma is undoubtedly a slow-burner, but it’s lovingly and lavishly mounted, the era evoked in a whole series of scenes that capture the essence of what it must have been been like to live in 1970s Mexico. It’s interesting to note that one sequence depicts a family visit to the cinema where the film on the screen is Marooned, a low budget space adventure that was clearly a huge influence on Cuaron’s blockbuster, Gravity. There’s every reason to suspect that Roma could very well be rewarded with a gong at next year’s Oscars, an occurrence that would undoubtedly raise interesting questions about the future of movie-making itself.
Meanwhile, if no cinema near you is showing it, then do watch it on the biggest TV you have access to. It’s a fabulous piece of work and proof, if it were needed, that Cuaron is one of our most interesting and gifted filmmakers.