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Roma (2018) written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón

A maid in Mexico

This historical drama is set in Mexico City during the early 1970s. It is told from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman who works as a maid to an affluent family. While she tends to the various needs of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four children, her own life takes a dramatic turn after her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) makes her pregnant.

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma

As a subsequent series of fraught and tragic events occur in their collective lives, some of their relationships fracture while others are brought far closer together.

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Alfonso Cuarón’s latest masterpiece

Roma is the very definition of a personal project for Alfonso Cuarón. Not only is the story inspired by his own upbringing, but he decided to adopt a singularly hands-on approach by writing, directing, lensing, co-producing and co-editing it. In the hands of lesser talent, this could so easily have degenerated into a disastrous vanity production. For Cuarón, however, it’s his first masterpiece since Children of Men in 2006 (2013’s Gravity, while technically startling, is somewhat lacking in depth).

From start to finish, it’s the work of a true artist who wields an unyielding grip on both storytelling and audio-visual mood. It places a heavy emphasis on lengthy takes and wide-angle shots in order to let the backdrop tell the story as much as the characters. Each and every picture-perfect monochromatic scene soaks up the fine details of the environment, bringing out both the country’s gaping social contrasts (the wealthy, toy-filled home of the Spanish settlers is pitted against the grimy slum conditions in which the indigenous people live) and its undeniably rich culture (ranging from the family cinema outings to a glowing New Year’s party).

There’s a real sense of affection and some intermittent (if occasionally black) humour here. A classic example of the latter occurs when one of Sofia’s young sons named Pepe (Marco Graf) plays dead during a toy gunfight and Cleo decides to join him. Later on, there’s another grimly hilarious moment when they visit Sofia’s brother who lives in a huge rural villa, where he displays the stuffed heads of his deceased dogs on the walls.

In the second half, however, the quaint and slightly frivolous tone gives way to a series of startlingly bleak occurrences which include a forest fire, a joltingly violent riot (slight shades of Children of Men here) and… well… much more besides. There are moments here which truly had me on the edge of my seat, not because of some mechanical build-up of tension, but because I was so immersed in these people and the world around them.

Right at the heart of Roma, however, is the relationship between Cleo and Sofia. While they are two women with widely disparate ethnic and class backgrounds, we gradually discover that they have far more in common in terms of shared experiences than we (and they) might initially believe. Amid the laughs, tears and anger, a considerably greater sense of familial closeness ultimately develops between them than between any of the other characters here - even including Cleo’s best friend-style relationship with fellow indigenous maid Adela (Nancy García García).

The result is a stunning humanist tapestry which should be seen by any self-respecting film fan.

Runtime: 135 mins

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón

Script: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Verónica García, Andy Cortés, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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