‘Roma’, Alfonso Cuaron’s first film since 2013’s Oscar-guzzling outer space spectacular ‘Gravity’, is by most measures a pretty major work. It won the Golden Lion at Venice after its premiere prompted a collective critical swoon, and it’s widely expected to become the first Spanish-language production to land an Oscar nomination for best picture. (Cuaron is currently the bookies’ favourite to take his second best director statuette.)
Beyond such accolades, meanwhile, it’s a significant industry milestone on the business side of things: the first film ever to persuade Netflix to drop their hitherto stubborn day-and-date strategy and release it exclusively in cinemas first.
You might expect a film with that level of clout to be some manner of blockbuster, though those who approach ‘Roma’ on hype alone may be surprised by how exquisitely small it is: hefty in formal scope, yes, but finally an intimate, fine-boned character study as memory piece, built from vignettes and images that suggest an uncovered family album in gleaming monochrome. Loosely autobiographical, it’s a reflection on Cuaron’s middle-class upbringing in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City amid the political tumult of the early 1970s, though Cuaron’s pre-teen proxy is a marginal presence: the protagonist and focal point here is Cleo, a young but prematurely world-weary woman who acts as the family’s live-in nanny and domestic worker.
Taciturn, delicate but resilient, she’s regarded with adoring awe throughout by Cuaron’s limber camera. From the opening shots, lingering patiently over the soapy water Cleo uses to clean the family’s driveway, it’s clear that ‘Roma’ is intended as a belated valentine to an unseen woman, treated with needy affection by employers who also take her casually for granted, rarely pausing to notice either the back-aching drudgery she endures for their sake or the shipshape domestic order left in its wake.
In gazing upon that drudgery, framing it in meticulous black and white, ‘Roma’ is nothing if not an act of noticing, paying its respects and attention most directly to its fictionalised subject with a closing dedication: “For Libo,” it says, doffing its cap to the Cuaron family’s longtime maid Liboria Rodriguez, whom the filmmaker says he consulted extensively in the writing process.
This is a world apart from the vision of domestic routine in a film such as ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, which stresses the banality of housework to underscore a homemaker’s psychological unravelling. If Cleo finds her job dreary — and ‘Roma’ doesn’t skimp on how thankless his blindly privileged family often made it for her — Cuaron’s cinematic thank-you letter effectively takes pride in it for her. This is a risky stance to take, particularly with a heroine already written as a naif of few words: ‘Roma’ gives a disenfranchised woman a spotlight more than it does a voice, and it’s left to the soulful, jaded expressivity of the non-professional actor Yalitzia Aparicio in the lead to wrest some storytelling control from the film’s imposingly perfect mise-en-scene.
If it took place in a vacuum of purely personal reference points, ‘Roma’ could easily seem at once reverent and slightly condescending: a nostalgic beautification of an ugly facet of family history. Cuaron is a smarter filmmaker than that, of course. As in his last Mexican film, 2001’s ‘Y tu Mama Tambien’, a tender coming-of-age narrative is suffused with broader, brittler class politics, as the vast economic disparity between the country’s lighter-skinned haves and darker-skinned have-nots is denoted throughout — not least in the large, fashionably appointed family townhouse around which so much of the film’s action airily revolves.
Cleo’s shabby servant’s quarters at the back, meanwhile, are pointedly shot from one outward-facing angle: there, the camera has no room to roam. Woman of the house Sofia may occasionally make magnanimous part-of-the-family gestures to Cleo, but the manifold enforced divisions and differences between them are illustrated in, well, black and white. (Not to mention aurally: a less careful film wouldn’t differentiate between the subtitles — complete with introductory on-screen key — indicating the Spanish spoken by the family and the Mixtec dialect spoken by Cleo and her class peers.)
Regardless of language, no one in ‘Roma’ talks about politics. The family has the luxury of being able to ignore such concerns; the illiterate Cleo, meanwhile, appears to be kept ignorant, even as the Corpus Christi massacre (ironically, a brutal response to students demonstrating for education reform) rages around her on a day of intense personal crisis. In this, the film’s most stunningly executed set piece, national affairs are pushed literally into the background, echoing the character’s own curtailed perspective. Is it in sympathy with her, too, that ‘Roma’ keeps its political critique tacit — littering the film with evidence of her oppression but refraining from speaking for her in protest?
Viewed from different angles, ‘Roma’ becomes either a seething confession of middle-class guilt, a complacent declaration of love or, most believably and movingly, a conflicted mixture of the two. If we never quite get to hear what Cleo makes of her lot, that’s indicative of an entrenched social system that gives men like Cuaron greater powers and outlets of expression. If ‘Roma’ is his magnum opus, it’s the beneficiary of multiple tiers of privilege, from his wealthy upbringing to the Hollywood success that enabled him to make this muscularly uncommercial personal project at all, much less see it given the full red-carpet treatment. (It’s not as if many of ‘Roma’s’ most vocal champions are regular proponents of Mexican neo-realist cinema, after all.)
It’s to Cuaron’s credit that he’s taken advantage of advantage, to turn the lens on a life that nobody in the industry was clamouring for the director of ‘Gravity’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ to portray. But there are parts of Cleo, of Libo, that even this great filmmaker cannot see. Stirring as both a labour of love and, perhaps, a whispered mea culpa, ‘Roma’ is a film of exacting observation and equally precise blind spots - leaving space, one hopes, for the stories of Cleo and women like her to be told from other vantage points.
Don’t miss it
‘Roma’ streams on Netflix from December 14.