A post-apocalyptic future, a low-Earth orbit space station and a school for wizards: Alfonso Cuarón’s recent filmography has been, by any standard, pretty otherworldly. Roma is in every sense a more grounded affair for the director, a low-key domestic drama about an ordinary middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s. And yet, with a confidence and ambition that again solidifies his status in the very top tier of modern filmmakers, the director deftly sprinkles the magical into this astonishingly authentic, honest portrait of humans living and coexisting. Indeed, it might be his best film yet.
Set in the Roma district of Mexico City where the director grew up, and centred on a middle-class household that painfully recreates his own formative years, it is by all accounts deeply autobiographical. But in an act of artistic humility, Cuarón’s focus is not on a young Cuarón. Instead, it’s on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two live-in maids for a busy, noisy, happy family of six. We learn her routine intimately, from the elegant opening titles of a driveway being mopped clean of dogshit (a pleasingly recurring motif), to the evening ritual of the four kids being lovingly put to bed.
It’s not hyperbolic to rate it among the most beautiful photography ever committed to screen.
Sometimes in these early moments, it feels like nothing happens at all. One sweetly realised scene sees the family literally just watch TV. Cleo joins them, maternally cuddling one of the kids and sharing in the simple joy — at least until told to clear the plates away. There’s a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs in the contrasts of class and race, but Cuarón never condescends and recognises the nuance in that relationship: even as she occasionally reproaches her employee, the mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) always acknowledges Cleo’s importance to the family.
It’s shot in black-and-white, which at first glance lends it a classical and neorealist feel. There’s undoubtedly a conscious influence of Fellini — his flair, flamboyancy and profound sense of feeling is all there. (By neat coincidence the Italian master also made a semi-autobiographical film called Roma.) But the monochrome here is less nostalgic affectation, more thrilling innovation. Each frame is crisp and rich, using a high dynamic range and an unusually deep depth of field. The effect is jaw-dropping. It’s not hyperbolic to rate it as being among the most beautiful photography ever committed to screen. Life spills into the frame, from the comforting familiarity of the family home (where a fixed camera pans gracefully between rooms, like an unjudging observer) to the dazzling later set-pieces as the pace picks up (a forest fire, a student riot, a beach accident). The camerawork makes everything feel hyper-real: more dream than documentary.
Cuarón has always loved challenging the boundaries of technical innovation — his favourite flourish, the unbroken single-take, is present and correct here — but, more so than in the flashier Gravity or grittier Children Of Men, this has real soul to it. Aided in no small part by Aparicio’s stunning debut performance, there is
a devastating emotional coda that will wrongfoot you, and still leave you feeling buoyant. Perhaps Roma’s most impressive feat is its humanism: its understanding of the chaos of life, and its unerring respect for those who meet that chaos with love. Really, Roma feels like a celebration of what it means to feel alive.