Throughout his multi-decade career, Alfonso Cuarón has proven himself a master of scale, both visual and thematic. The director is as adroit with intimate storytelling as he is with the epic, and can mix the personal with the political. His 2013 thriller Gravity demonstrates the beautiful albeit indifferent vastness of space, as well as the indomitable, immeasurable spirit of the tiny lifeforms flailing through its vacuum. Cuarón’s literary adaptations—including Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Great Expectations, and A Little Princess—continue their sources’ fantastic world-building while adding new, often darker layers to their discussions of class tensions. Even his raunchy road trip movie, Y Tu Mamá También, is as much a living postcard as it is a coming-of-age story; Cuarón pairs gorgeous Mexican desert and oceanside vistas with a look inward, dropping several autobiographical references, including mentioning a nanny from Tepelmeme Villa de Morelos, a town in the state of Oaxaca.
Seventeen years after that film’s release, Cuarón returns to both his homeland and the story of that nanny for Roma, his most personal project to date. Shot in 65mm black and white with a hefty dose of neorealism, Roma is one of the most loving and painstakingly crafted cinematic tributes to any individual (real or otherwise) in recent memory—one that, by its conclusion, lifts its subject up and places her among the clouds. This period drama is driven by labors of love, both on screen and off. The story centers on a young Mixtec woman named Cleo (luminous newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who looks after a middle-class family she comes to think of as her own. Cleo is a stand-in for Libo, the woman who helped raise Cuarón—and to whom he dedicates the film—and the director is the architect of her world. After a scheduling conflict prevented him from working with frequent collaborator and fellow Oscar winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Cuarón added cinematography to a list of duties that already included scripting and co-editing. Cuarón’s prep also included phone calls with his former caretaker, who didn’t realize at the time she was helping interpret a chapter of her life for the big screen.
The result is a little too rose-tinted an homage, but Roma is still an exceptionally moving story, as well as another technical feat from Cuarón. There’s no indication that taking over for Lubezki put any undue strain on him—the impressive long takes are here, revealing all kinds of life (and danger) in the center of Mexico City and the neighboring small towns. They’re complemented by lateral pans that occasionally spin out, only to return to the calm center provided by Cleo, whose inspiration must have offered the same kind of consistency for Cuarón, a child of divorce. His gratitude is obvious, the camera fairly doting on Cleo as she moves through the comfortably cluttered apartment in Colonia Roma, the upper-middle-class neighborhood in the Mexican capital where Cuarón spent his childhood, and which lends the movie its title.
Cleo is dutiful yet graceful as she tackles chores and errands before retiring to the small room she shares with Adela (Nancy García García), another domestic servant in the household of Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four children. She’s much more embedded in their lives than Adela is; in a charming early scene, she plays dead for her youngest charge, Pepe (Marco Graf). The bond Cleo establishes with the family as a whole is tested more than once, each time with different results. Sofía, a former academic, doesn’t take well to her husband’s long absences—which eventually become permanent—and she occasionally lashes out at Cleo. But she’s also supportive when the younger woman finds herself pregnant and abandoned by Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a handsome but selfish student of martial arts. Sofía’s sympathy isn’t just noblesse oblige, though. As a rejected woman herself, she can relate to Cleo’s plight.
Cuarón and his cast establish a connection between employer and employee—between affluent, light-skinned Mexican and working-class Mixtec, who have both been let down by uncaring men. As a drunken Sofía tells Cleo one night, “women, we are alone.” But as Roma maps out their common ground, it also demonstrates just how narrow it is. We see it in their very different reactions to being jilted: After confiding in her boss, Cleo mostly suffers quietly, while Sofía is able to take trips to secluded mansions and the Oaxacan coast (with her live-in nanny in tow). It’s not easy for either woman to be alone, but thanks to Cleo, it is easier for Sofía. The use of a monochromatic palette is more than an aesthetic choice; its starkness reflects the women’s disparate situations and underscores the class divide. The casting is also key here: Telenovela veteran de Tavira looks every bit la dueña de la casa, but she also shows great vulnerability, especially as it dawns on her that she might have to move into a smaller casa. Given the time period, this would have been no simple undertaking, even if the “good” doctor were actually playing alimony.
That acknowledgment of outdated gender roles is but one detail in the vivid picture that Roma paints of the broader historical context. Documented land grabs and political unrest also inform and turn up the drama. The 1971 massacre of student protestors (known as the Corpus Christi massacre) is rendered in a series of panoramic scenes that recall the outcome of Gone With The Wind’s battle of Atlanta in their destruction and scope, or a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life. A student protest-turned-riot burns across several, tense minutes, and culminates in a most harrowing birth scene. Elsewhere, midday parades force even the residents of Roma to remember the military presence, interrupting family reunions and making the lonely Sofía look even more like an army wife.
But Cuarón mostly reserves his diligence for recreating that period in his former caretaker’s life. This is ultimately Libo/Cleo’s story, and Roma is Aparicio’s movie. Her guileless performance is marked by shining, incredibly expressive eyes, held so wide that it sometimes feels like we can see the faces and actions of those around her projected onto them. Her diminutive stature aside, she looms large in a film set in a tumultuous period in Mexican history. But beyond a stray disparaging remark, which is delivered by the same scoundrel who abandoned her, there’s not much commentary about Cleo’s work, or the social structures that allow for someone to live with a family without ever truly being a part of it. Despite his obvious reverence for the character and her history, Cuarón fails to really interrogate her circumstances. There are subtle nods to Cleo’s position, like when she kneels next to her beloved Pepe while watching TV. She sits on a sofa cushion, not the sofa, and must immediately get up to fix a cup of tea. Even during a time of rest, her work is never done—and like that cushion, she’s a separate entity, apart from the whole. But that reality is glossed over and then seemingly washed away, like so many words scratched into sand, by a tearful breakdown at the beach. Sharing Libo’s story with potentially millions of people is an amazing way to show respect and shed some light, but it seems there’s one aspect of that story that Cuarón couldn’t quite face in this exquisitely filmed reverie.