Yalitza Aparicio. Remember her name. As an amateur debutante she plays Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film Roma. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of upstairs/downstairs life in his native Mexico City, set in 1971 when he would have been ten.
Cleo is one of two live-in workers for the middle class family whose male doctor head deserts them, leaving mum, four young kids and gran to face their futures together poorer.
On screen throughout Cleo is nanny, cook, cleaner and carer with little time or space for her own desires. She does get occasional downtime to explore the teeming city in which she meets Fermin. He has found martial arts as his saviour from extreme poverty, violence and despair.
Much of the film’s narrative tension results from Cleo finding herself pregnant by him while she is also becoming her employer’s emotional rock.
Roma exemplifies the auteur theory of film-making in which its core producers are regarded as the equal of a novel’s author or a painting’s artist. They create a unique vision, albeit on an industrial scale with hundreds of contributors on any film. In this case Cuarón has written, directed, shot and edited Roma. So more than most this is absolutely his filmic vision.
Readers may know Cuarón’s previous work as director, such as Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Children of Men (2006) or Gravity (2013). Roma displays some elements consistent with those; a determined central character amid turbulent surroundings, aquatic endings, predominantly soft, natural lighting, and lengthy, elegant, wide-angle shots.
For Roma Cuarón has chosen to echo the popular works of Italian neo-realism by filming in black and white, and foregrounding a female worker. This film also highlights the telling contribution of veteran sound designer Skip Lievsay. There is comparatively little musical sound, but the domestic, street, rural and coastal soundscapes are vividly evocative. So it looks and sounds utterly beautiful.
Roma has already garnered a tidal wave of critical plaudits. It tops the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound’s poll of critics as best of 2018’s releases. Across the US and Europe press comments are hugely positive, none more gushing than The Guardian’s, deeming it an “epic of tear-jerking magnificence...thrilling, engrossing, moving — and just entirely amazing, an adjectival pileup of wonder.”
Roma is indeed a strong spoonful of enlightening medicine for anyone who has never known or wondered about how ordinary Mexicans live their lives. But it is, like many of Ken Loach’s films, about neither pessimism nor optimism but realism, about the desperate plight of an individual who serves as a cipher for the global female working class, exploited and loved in unequal measure.
Next February Hollywood’s Academy of film professionals has an opportunity to spite Donald Trump. They could well vote for an unknown ethnic Mexican woman to win its best actress Oscar, and confound his viciously racist approach to the US’s southern neighbour. Let’s hope they do.