Five years after spinning around in outer space in Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón returns to the grit, bustle and beauty of the planet Earth with Roma, a warm and lived-in ode to his Mexican childhood.
“Rarely has a film set more than 40 years in the past felt so vibrant, so very real”
The titles appear over the black-and-white image of water being washed over a courtyard floor. At first just seeping into the screen, the water begins lapping over the credits like waves at the shorefront, before the screen pans up to reveal a maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), mopping the floor. Cleo works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira), looking after her three children and cleaning the house. Sofia’s husband, a doctor, is unreliable, unfaithful and seldom home.
Cleo spends her free time going on dates with Fermín, the friend of a mutual friend, until she discovers she is pregnant. The bulk of Roma is set over the course of her pregnancy, covering the transition from 1970 into 1971 and her life in Mexico City. In the background of the film lurks the violence and upheaval of the wider world; we see snatches of discontent and trouble throughout, culminating in a terrific, shocking scene in which Cleo is in the city centre during the infamous Corpus Christi massacre of student protesters.
The most immediately brilliant aspect of the Netflix-produced Roma is its cinematography. Cuarón, who helmed the camera himself, clearly learned a lot from his usual world-class collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. The film looks incredible. The moments of Cleo working around the house are filmed with deftness and intimacy, but the camera comes alive when Cleo goes out into the world. The sheer ambition of what the Oscar-winning director manages to capture – forest fires, riots, sweeping tracking shots across the city – locates the story in the context of the world. Rarely has a film set more than 40 years in the past felt so vibrant, so very real.
It might not be Cuarón’s best film – Children of Men is pretty much prophesy as far as I’m concerned – but Roma is his most complete. It is a visually breathtaking, often sad story about familial love, with a keen sensitivity to class and Mexican history. No longer the big-spending wannabes, Netflix have now produced their first masterpiece, a lyrical and personal film from a huge filmmaker returning to his roots.