Roma: Alfonso Cuarón recalls his childhood

A Drama
Written & directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Opens Friday

What an amazing film! Alfonso Cuarón, after making Children of Men and Gravity, returns to his native Mexico to create a loosely-plotted study of Mexico City, 1970-71, through the eyes of an indigenous maid who works for a comfortable middle-class family.

At first, Roma seems headed towards class issues. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives with this seemingly happy family, but she’s not one of them. She loves the children, but when they’re all watching TV together, she’s the one who gets up to make the father tea. She shares her small bedroom with the cook.

But Cuarón has far more to consider than class differences (which are also racial, of course). Roma is a study of a time and a place, a culture, a people, and one special person, who just happens to be a maid.

Among other things, Roma is about driving – or more specifically, parking. The father has a very big, wide car, which he parks in a sort of driveway/garage that is barely wider than the car itself, and is strewn with dog turds. Life would be much easier with a smaller car, but this man is proud of his transportation – and his skill at parking. There’s not much humor in Roma, but most of it is around cars.

Roma uses an old, outdated, offensive stereotype: Women are lousy drivers. On the other hand, the film uses another opposing stereotype: Men are jerks.

Half an hour into this 135-minute film, Cleo tells her martial arts-obsessed boyfriend that she’s pregnant. He responds by walking out on her. And no, the film is not about an unmarried woman carrying a child. It’s about a lot of things, and that’s just one of them.

That good-for-nothing boyfriend isn’t the only man to run away from his responsibilities. Early on, the husband leaves on what he tells his wife is a business trip. We never see him again. The wife and the maid bond through their own experiences of being dumped, but still, one is the lady of the house, and the other is a servant.

Much goes on in their lives. They visit relatives for the New Year and find themselves putting out a forest fire. Cleo goes searching for her unborn child’s father and finds surprising inner strength.

And in one of the film’s strongest sequences, Cleo and her employer’s mother get caught in the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre – an actual catastrophe. Here this intimate, fictional film becomes a historical epic, with hundreds of people fighting in the streets.

The director shot the film himself, in black-and-white and scope, with an exceptional grayscale, a deep sense of texture, and very fine detail. Occasionally beautiful, and always on target, the camerawork is among the best I’ve seen recently.

Cuarón has lately given us movies in a dystopian future and in outer space. I’m glad he’s come down to Earth.