A dripping tap, laundry suspended on a clothesline against the sky, soapy water rushing along paving stone, a dog barking from behind a gate.
In Gravity, Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón took us into the heavens, suspending us between life on Earth and the emptiness of space. In Roma, everyday domestic routines are shot with the same reverence. The ordinary is extraordinary.
Inspired by the women who raised him, Cuarón follows young housemaid Cleo (beautifully played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio), who lives with an upper middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City. While she is adored by the family’s three young children, her lower status keeps her at arm’s length from being part of the family. Cracks begin to form in Cleo’s personal life in parallel with the disintegration of the parents’ marriage, culminating in a heart-wrenching climax.
It’s titled Roma because of its setting in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood, and serves as a nod to Federico Fellini’s 1972 similarly semi-autobiographical drama of the same title. But to examine the narrative events seems superficial; this is moment-to-moment storytelling that’s immersive in its rendering of realism as spectacle.
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 a kind of an effortless elegance that frames its subject beautifully. Yet it never shouts for attention. The film is shot in black and white; there’s no handheld camera here attempting to convince us of documentary realism. And yet everything he shows us feels vibrant and naturalistic, from children bickering at the dinner table, to the strange, ritualistic drama of a forest fire, and violence breaking out in the streets as a protest turns into a massacre. All sound is diegetic, bringing this world to life before our eyes and ears.
His customary long takes are perfect for showing us real life in real time, smoothly following Cleo as she performs and re-performs her daily routines, from waking the children in the morning to methodically switching all the lights off at night. Her most Sisyphean task is washing away the family dog’s faeces from their paved driveway, a chore Cuarón still manages to imbue with visual beauty. So much of this story is told via routine. The father of the family is introduced via his absurdly large car, all dark wood and cigarette smoke, which barely fits in the narrow driveway squeezed between the house and the neighbouring wall. We repeatedly see both him and his wife attempting to carefully manoeuvre the car through the gap. It’s a simple, but effective symbol of his bullish masculinity.
Roma manages to be both intimate, as emotion simmers beneath the veneer of the everyday, and epic, as a few set-pieces give a sense of grandeur. Centred on Yalitza Aparicio’s stunning performance, it’s a film in which the mundane is quietly miraculous.