Mexico (2018) Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

What do you do for a follow up when your last film is a box office hit that wins seven Oscars – including Best Director – and numerous awards? If you are Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, you team up with streaming service Netflix and release a 135-minute black and white nostalgia trip about your homeland.

Roma is not the sort of film that seeks mainstream appeal thus it is certain anyone who enjoyed Cuarón’s previous film Gravity and might check this out for that reason will struggle badly here. That it is in black and white with dialogue in Spanish is enough to turn off many people before they get to the moderately paced essaying of the quotidian life of a maid in a well-to-do household.

Usually by now, I’ve outlined the plot of the film but Roma doesn’t really have much of one, not a conventional one anyway. Our guide if you will on this journey is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), maid to Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her family, who falls pregnant to her one off lover Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who wants nothing to do with the baby. Meanwhile, Sofia’s doctor husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) keeps taking work trips to Quebec when in fact he is having an affair.

And that is it in terms of plot, which those who can’t get on with or appreciate neo-realist arthouse cinema won’t find anything to hook them here. The deep space drama Cuarón wowed audiences with in Gravity is as far removed from early 1970’s Mexico as you can get, and a young woman picking up after spoiled children is unlikely to compete with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around in space in glorious 3D.

But I doubt Cuarón is that concerned though – he is a passionate filmmaker who takes his art very seriously and Roma is a personal project for him. This semi-autobiographical recalling of his own upbringing in Mexico City does have a slightly aloof feel about it in terms of letting the audience get to know and feel for the character beyond Cleo yet has is stealthily absorbing at the same time.

Patience is a virtue and I admit that it took me awhile to acclimatise to the world Cuarón is presenting to us, largely because there is little context or exposition shared in the film. It is only from external sources that it is made clear knowledge of Mexican history from this period helps frame much of what is shown here, making it less baffling than it is without this information.

One example is late in the second act when Cleo and Sofia’s mother Teresa (Verónica García) are buying a crib for the baby, coincidentally at the same time as The Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. The uninitiated will see hoards of people protesting in the street which leads to a violent riot and a man being shot in front of Cleo and Teresa; one of the gunmen is Fermín which causes Cleo’s waters to break.

Roma’s arthouse leanings means its themes are subtle, likely to be imperceptible to some audiences. Even if this is the case, the issue of class should be easy to divine. Cleo is considered one of the family by Sofia and the kids, yet she and fellow maid Adela (Nancy García) live in a tiny room at the back of the sprawling mansion, and Cleo is expected to continue to carry heavy bags and he like despite being pregnant.

This master and servant dichotomy overlaps when both Cleo and Sofia become women abandoned by their men yet ironically the distance of their roles remains as Sofia has family and friends to turn to whilst Cleo effectively has no-one. Okay so the family all tell Cleo they love her, yet as their employee, there is scant sign of true appreciation and reciprocation for her dutiful attendance.

It is interesting that Cuarón chose Cleo to be the central figure in this film when she, in effect, is the least dynamic person in it. However, her quiet stoicism is her charisma and her blank slate appearance has a magnetic quality in reflecting her inner resolve. Cleo personifies grace under pressure yet we will her to let go and fight back, but she seems grounded by her dignity not to cause a fuss.

At times Roma has a documentary feel about it with the camera kept rather distant from the cast’s faces for most of the time yet always moves as they do – when they walk down the street they are shot from across the road as though they are being spied on by a stalker. This gives the film a bit of energy and movement in what is otherwise a fairly sedentary outing, despite its multiple locations.

Cuarón uses framing and composition to create small moments of effective drama. The most significant would be the birth scene, shot in one take with the camera fixed on Cleo in the foreground whilst in the soft focus background the doctors go about their duties in preparing and dealing with this premature arrival. It’s one of many stark tableaux that justify the use of black and white presentation rather than being an arty gimmick.

Some might label this as “pretentious” but when such observant photography is shared in pin sharp clarity, the monochrome veneer accentuates the honesty and rawness of the film’s discourse. Most of the cast are first timers or non-professionals in true neo-realist fashion, with none shining more than Yalitza Aparicio, who seems almost unaware she is being filmed, her performance is that natural and beguiling.

Many have already declared Roma the best film of the year. Personally, I found it a little emotionally distant for my liking and wanted it to leap out and grab me a bit more but as a piece of art, it is powerful and exquisite. It is a four-star film without question though and I am glad to have seen it.