An early Christmas present arrived from Netflix last year, tucked in between Bird Box and that new Tomb Raider film which you didn’t see. Yes, it’s Alfonso Cuaron’s much-vaunted return to ground-level storytelling after his commercial and critical smash Gravity in 2013.
An autobiographical tale of his own youth in 1970s Mexico City, related from the point of view of his family’s maid Cleo, it’s a triumph. We see the family struggling to stay united through a period of great upheaval, a young woman’s coming of age, and the dawn of a new era in the nation’s politics.
Roma is conservatively paced, until it isn’t, highlighting the repetitions of daily life and domestic tasks over superficial incident. But our characters are soon taken out of their comfort zones by political turmoil, family departures and one truly tragic development. Cuaron doesn’t let us off the hook, either: on a visit to a maternity ward, a sudden earthquake shakes us both literally and symbolically from our placitude and signals that violent change is coming for this family, and indeed all of Mexico.
An atmosphere of quiet sadness suffuses Cuaron’s mise-en-scene, aided by the stark black-and-white cinematography (also by Cuaron). At times it recalls last year’s Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, and it’s hard not to feel that these deeply personal stories have struck a chord: telling minor-key stories of everyday lives in the shadow of greater political upheaval.
It’s a beautiful film which doesn’t make concessions to outsiders, who may be puzzled by the lack of overt references to the story’s political context – I don’t exclude myself from that group. Likewise, the relaxed pace doesn’t scream ‘box office’. But Roma has a rare beauty, a simple tale told through dazzling set pieces and assured performances, especially from first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo. Whether it can go all the way in the race for the Oscar remains to be seen, but it’s a powerful contender.