Roma ★★★½


This black-and-white film about the life of a housekeeper in early 1970s Mexico City, is an obvious labour of love for Cuarón. So it’s pretty surprising that it is loaded with heavy-handed symbolism and painfully obvious portents of bad events (such as the breaking of a glass of drink right after a toast is made for somebody’s good health). He apparently wrote, directed, edited, and produced Roma, and based the story on his own family home and the woman who helped to raise him. At least, the fact that it is an obvious labour of love, shows in how lovingly it is crafted. It looks stunning from start to finish, though the recent Cold War, also shot in black-and-white looks even better, and is generally the better film. From the tracking shot of the two maids, Cleo and Adela, running through the city, to the cacophony of street sellers, marching bands and student protesters, Cuarón has brought the memories of his childhood to life on screen. But it’s not merely naïve nostalgia (though there is some of it unfortunately)– his camera mostly knows where to look to get to the awkward, heartbreaking, crunchy bits of life.

With Roma, Cuaron has taken an “intimate” “women’s story” about “female concerns”, like chores and children, and then consciously and expertly made it feel epic and consequential, tying it into the fabric of what was going on in Mexico City at the time, but such concerns only start to make sense and be really effective in the more eventful and better second half. There is no doubt that he is a great director, formally at the top of his game, pouring all his passion into the story of a regular woman who worked for his family. Her story mattered to him so he (eventually) makes it matter to the viewer.

Cuarón is obviously trying to show and not tell throughout,  the grace and resilience of the central character Cleo, played wonderfully by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio, but she is far too passive, and her story is too heavily sign-posted at crucial moments, so it ultimately fails to really resonate. At the same time however, the whole film is full of visual wit and layers of imagery, some quite bold in their simplicity or repetition and difficult to unpack (for example what is he trying to show with the many shots of water, soapy and otherwise and other liquids?).

For all its’ striving for grandeur, one of the core messages of the film is conveyed not by a grand monologue but by a simple line, a word of advice uttered to Cleo by a drunk, despondent Sofia (the mother of the household), and despite being quite simple, it is still one that is quite valid and it is excellently fleshed out by the film.

Roma is certainly a quietly intense film (a bit too quietly in fact) that makes you want to imbibe and inhale it, but unfortunately it’s not a masterpiece (far from it actually). It is however an impressively shot, formally stupendous piece of personal cinema about class and compassion, family and tedium, solidarity and denial.

Unmissable definitely, but flawed.

My list of films released in 2018 (ranked)

Block or Report

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