Director Alfonso Cuaron, whose Gravity had such a great lift off in Venice three years ago, returns to his native Mexico for the first time since Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) with the earthbound yet somehow other-worldly film Roma.
Roma is the name of a suburb of Mexico City and the setting for this sprawlingly beautiful memoir of a movie, shot in burnished black and white and taking place in the early 1970s. It feels like a very personal work, the colour of memory, and is decorated with the sort of little remembered details that will resonate widely, even if they never happened to you.
It’s the story of a maid, Cleo, who works for the wealthy-ish young family of a hospital Doctor. Cuaron – who writes, shoots, directs and produces – makes much of their house, poking around every room, circling as Cleo cleans the tables and mops the floors, clearing up after the family dog Barras. The house has a covered garage at the side, where Barras likes to leave his business, much to the Doctor’s disgust.
There are four kids, who bicker merrily about which radio station to listen to on the school run and play Scalextric, while Cleo tidies up around them and hangs the family washing out to dry on the roof. The children are blissfully unaware of their father’s sudden absence – explained as a business trip – and their mother’s tears.
They also have no idea about the secret personal life of Cleo, a poor indigenous girl from a shanty town. She loves the kids dearly, but is now expecting a child of her own, despite the feckless behaviour of her boyfriend Fermin, who does a runner on hearing the news, leaving Cleo in the cinema all alone as the seats empty out.
While the kids form the film’s energy and noise, instead of creating a film about childhood itself, though, Cuaron makes it a story of both women, left to fend for themselves. “We are always alone,” whispers the Mum, drunkenly to Cleo after crashing the car into that garage wall.
But mostly it’s a film full of astounding, virtuoso shots where a hundred different things are going on in the frame, such as a plane overhead, or a band marching past, or a wedding party in the background, or a human cannonball landing in a net.
Despite the childhood idyll it conjures – this is film making as an act of memory – every space also has potential to become a danger zone, from the house itself, to the city streets, the movie house steps, a furniture store, the beach, and even the hospital maternity ward. Death is around every bend. This is Mexico as charming, romantic, violent, devastating, cruel, unjust, corrupt and tragic, the women standing for metaphorical Mother Mexico figures, from very different sides of the social divide.
It’s a film of wonderful moments and a deceptively easy virtuosity and, although I’m queasy about film makers trying to explain away the privilege of having been brought up by staff – a distinctive and recurring theme of Latin American cinema – you can’t deny the heart and the hurt the adult Cuaron pours into Roma.
The Netflix row meant this didn’t premiere at Cannes, and the Croisette’s loss is certainly the Lido’s gain. It would be a very worthy winner at Venice.