Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Cast: Marina de Tavira, Yalitza Aparicio
Watch Roma online in the UK: Netflix UK
“We’re on our own!” cries Sofia (Marina de Tavira) halfway through Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s heart-wrenching latest. It’s an outburst, part painful realisation, part rallying cry, that doesn’t need saying to her housemaid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who has already been left to face the dramas of day-to-day life by herself. Together, they provide a moving, quietly remarkable lens through which to glimpse 1970s Mexico – a window with a cracked pane and no money to fix it.
We begin our film, tellingly, with a close-up of a puddle, as Cleo goes about her cleaning routine, mopping, rinsing, repeating. Over two hours, the movie builds up a cyclical sense of mess unexpectedly erupting before being slowly tidied up, and it’s that act of restoring, maintaining order that drives this love letter to the women behind the scenes who keep households running. Sofia’s marriage to her husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is evidently on its last leg – the most we see of him is the fastidious way he parks his car at night, a vehicle that (in a delightful touch) is a few inches too big for his own garage. But it’s the way that the breakdown occurs, and, more accurately, the way that Sofia responds that makes the film so entirely compelling.
How does Sofia respond? With the help of Cleo, and that bond of support – which goes beyond hirer/helper (the divide between have and have-not is present) to friendship and family – only strengthens over time, as each one finds their own domestic order give way to chaos, then gradually sweeps it to one side. Aparicio is superb, bringing a vulnerable heart and stubborn spirit to the role of a second, under-appreciated mother – she’s supported with buouyant charm and energy by an excellent cast of sprogs – and she’s matched throughout by Marina de Tavira, whose determined, stoic presence brings huge emotional weight without ever giving way to melodrama.
Cuaron crafts a black-and-white spotlight in which these two leading ladies can shine, and his handiwork is impeccable, a monochrome cinephile’s dream that combines the sweeping spectacle of Gravity with the intimacy of Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s a deeply earnest piece, and the accomplished storyteller gently deploys all of his tricks to get us closer to the story – the composition of the home scenes has the precision of a stage play, while the sound design is astonishingly immersive, using Dolby Atmos to surround you in the hub-bub of every vividly realised location, before loudly interrupting the action with heart-stopping set pieces; a depiction of the Corpus Christi massacre has all the brutal intensity of Saving Private Ryan, while a chest-pounding hospital scene recalls the poignant impact of Children of Men.
Novelistic and poetic in its wander through cotidian memories, Roma is every bit as well assembled as Alfonso’s best work, but he harnesses that technical prowess to channel a personal passion; a cinematic epic built like a soap opera, one that carries you warmly over the breaking waves of life, before you even notice you’ve drifted from the safety of the shore. Cuaron has always been a filmmaker with heart, but here, he wears it on his sleeve.
Roma is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Roma is available in UK cinemas from Thursday 29th November. Find out where you can see it on the big screen here.