A dripping tap, laundry suspended on a clothes line, soapy water rushing along paving stone, a dog barking from behind a gate. In Gravity, Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón took us into the heavens. In Roma, everyday domestic routines are shot with the same reverence. The ordinary is extraordinary.
Plot-wise, the film is slight. Inspired by his real-life nanny, Cuarón follows young housemaid Cleo, played by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio, who lives with an upper middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. Cracks begin to form in Cleo’s life whilst the stability of the family is threatened, culminating in a heartrending climax. But to focus on the narrative events seems superficial. By reframing his own childhood memories from Cleo’s perspective, Cuarón has crafted a deeply personal film that elevates the unheard voices of domestic servants. It’s moment-to-moment storytelling that makes realism spectacular.
Cuarón, acting as both cinematographer and director here, portrays his world with extraordinary care. Every scene simultaneously feels meticulously designed and yet totally natural, with every shot possessing an effortless elegance that frames its subject beautifully but never shouts for attention. The film is shot in black and white and there’s no handheld camera here attempting to convince us of documentary realism. And yet everything he shows us feels naturalistic, from children bickering at the dinner table, to the strange, ritualistic drama of a forest fire, to violence breaking out in the streets. All sound is diegetic, bringing this world to life before our eyes and ears.
Roma manages to be both intimate, as emotion simmers beneath the veneer of the everyday, and epic, as a few striking set-pieces give a sense of grandeur. Centred on Yalitza Aparicio’s moving performance, it’s a film in which the mundane is quietly miraculous.