Rajeev Masand

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Have you seen this?

Life itself

 
 

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a film of great beauty and genuine feeling.

It couldn’t be more dissimilar to his other films, and yet, like some of his best work it has that incredible, immersive quality that transports the viewer to another world. Previously he’s taken us to space (Gravity), to a magical school for wizards (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), we’ve even spent some time in a post-apocalyptic future (Children of Men). But Roma, inspired by memories of Cuarón’s own growing up years, is an authentic, evocative portrait of Mexico City life in the early 70s.

Shot in stunning black and white, and much of it in long single takes, the film is essentially a domestic drama about an upper middle-class family living in a spacious home in the Roma neighbourhood that’s thrown into upheaval when the father leaves. Cuarón’s focus though is on the family’s live-in maid Cleo, a character who the filmmaker has revealed is based on his own childhood nanny and housekeeper.

Played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who was working as a schoolteacher when Cuarón cast her in the film, Cleo spends her days busy with household chores. She’s constantly pottering about, preparing meals, doing the laundry, cleaning dogshit from the driveway, or tending to every need of the four kids who are clearly attached to her.

If you ever had a loving nanny in your childhood that you remember fondly, chances are that you’ll recognise the relationship immediately. Cleo is very much a part of the family, and yet always the help. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the family gathered in the living room watching television. Cleo is among them too, one of the kids nestled in her lap as she partakes in this simple pleasure…that is until she’s told to clear away the plates.

Cuarón also gives us a glimpse of Cleo’s life outside the home. She endures her own upheavals including an unreliable boyfriend and a devastating personal tragedy. The events of the film unfold against larger events in Mexico’s social and political history to give the film heft.

But that’s too much information already. What you must know about Roma is that asks us to contemplate themes of class and dignity of work, while pointedly asking us to introspect on what makes a family, and what is love after all?

In both the performances of his actors, and the look and feel of the film, Cuarón aspires for – and successfully achieves – absolute realism. From its very opening shot of a tiled floor being washed to its deeply moving final moments, watching Roma feels like watching life unfold. There’s never a false moment.

You’ll be surprised by how another family’s life can feel so personal to you.

 

(Roma is now streaming on Netflix)

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