Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest release — now in select theaters, coming to Netflix on December 14th — is also his most ambitious, a moving reflection on 1970s Mexico that affords personal drama and family life the attention and scale of an epic.
Roma is a semi-autobiographical look at the Mexico City of Cuarón’s upbringing. The film follows only a loose storyline, centered on a young domestic worker named Cleo, played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cuarón sets Cleo’s role running the household of her well-heeled employer against her marginalized station in Mexican society, providing a panoramic view of middle-class decadence and the poverty and hardship that enables it.
Roma establishes a subtle dichotomy between heaven and earth in its opening shot, as Cleo’s chore of washing a soiled driveway reveals a watery reflection of the sky over Mexico City’s Colonia Roma in luminous black and white. The plot similarly ebbs and flows through the inherent instability of family life that Cuarón described at a screening of the film as a “shared experience of loneliness.” Fortune and disaster are constantly entangled: An earthquake shakes a maternity ward, a forest fire threatens the family hacienda, a riptide disrupts a pristine Veracruz beach outing.
The maternal figures at the center of the film, Cleo and her employer Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira), are trapped playing the roles society has given them. As Sofia’s marriage unravels, Cleo’s own romance — and Mexico City itself — begins to fall apart. Throughout the film, men embody fickle machismo, abandoning women and their children only to resurface amidst violence and chaos.
Anchored by naturalistic performances and sensitive camerawork, Roma disrupts quiet personal moments with jarring historical events, such as the 1971 Halconazo massacre. The sum is a beautiful, sometimes painful family portrait that feels universally relevant.
AQ Rating: 9/10
Written and Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy García García, Fernando Grediaga
Miller is the production editor for Americas Quarterly