A meticulously crafted film that transcends stereotypical bias on gender, class and race.

If you were asked to tell a story to a bunch of strangers, what would it be about? A colourful and grand tale of adventure, or a more somber and subjective story you would rather not talk about? Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is one such story where ordinary characters find themselves in situations so commonplace, you could say these situations occur to a million people every day. But if a thing of beauty is a joy forever, Roma will be remembered for a long time, simply due to the immersive nature in which this story is told.

Known for his sweeping long takes, Cuaron’s opening shot is just over four minutes long of a driveway being washed with soap and water. For a Netfilx release, there is an ever present danger when watching this film on TV or a handheld device, in that viewers could be tempted to fast forward seemingly unimportant segments through the course of the film. A little bit of patience will go a long way in rewarding the viewer with not just one, but two incredibly emotive moments that are both staggering to take in. For this to achieve full impact, we are first conditioned by the mesmerizing nature in which the story unfolds. When the camera finally lifts up, we see the person cleaning the driveway. She is the domestic help to an upper middle-class family in the titular Mexican city. Though indigenous, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is very much part of the family she serves, yet her place as the help is clearly defined. Cleo’s Caucasian employers are Sofia and her husband Antonio, their four children, and the children’s grandmother. But there’s trouble brewing in the family. Antonio’s unexplained and lengthy travels (as a doctor) often leaves Sofia and the kids in a state of dysfunction. From regularly cleaning up dog poop to comforting the kids when they fight, Cleo is eager to help out in every way possible. All this changes the day Cleo learns she is pregnant. Worse, the egocentric would-be-father wants nothing to do with it.

From Children of Men in 2006 and Gravity in 2013, Cuaron’s nuance is in the way his characters are subjected to an impending crisis and the chaotic nature of said crisis. Roma has a lot of that crisis, but this time Cuaron is invoking a very personal story in what has been referred to as a semi-biographical episode during his upbringing. There is both a clear adoration and tribute to the women who raised him, but it’s the manner in which they are presented that makes this film more of a memoir than a conventionally told narrative. After an hour or so of runtime, it becomes clear that there is not much of a plot, but a series of events strung together like sequences from a dream. This is where the film gets its heft. Circa early 1970s, Mexican socio-political events unfold in several frames, but mainly in the background. Like a renaissance painting, there is so much happening on almost all corners of the screen that it’s easy to lose track of the strong bond forming between Cleo and the family she serves – Testament of which lies in the last fifteen minutes of the film, or the second of two powerfully crafted moments in the story; Powerful and moving, and all without a musical score or even the expressive sound of a violin.

Presented in crisp, clean, 65mm black and white, this is also Cuaron serving as cinematographer for the first time. The result is a rich, visually stunning array of compositions filled with jaw dropping texture and depth. Coupled with Cuaron’s signature long takes and stupendously juxtaposed satire, we are drawn into an entire world made with gorgeous micro-macro detail. But it’s a world we watch objectively and from the sidelines. Perhaps that is part of the point of this film – a monochromatic introspection that transcends stereotypical bias on gender, class and race. Aparicio (in her debut role) conjures this feeling in Cleo with remarkable realism. It’s in the way she looks, talks, and nurtures the family. It’s in the way she mothers those kids as her own. It’s in the way she is needed but also taken for granted. Yet, when it’s her turn to receive help, all she has is us looking back in awe but also suffering with her. In any other film, all this would be mere melodrama but with Cuaron as the auteur, Roma is a beautiful film crafted with meticulous detail. With limited release in cinemas, most people will be limited to watching this film on a Netflix streaming device. That shouldn’t be a problem when the best part of this film is its soul and not its size.

Rating: ★★★★½

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.