Film Review: Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is beautifully shot. Yet for all its allure, the film may leave viewers wanting something more.

Cleo works as a maid for a middle class family in 1970s Roma, Mexico. Cleo must attend to the family during a time of upheaval, whilst also living her own life…

Based on his own childhood memories, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has created a very personal film with Roma. The film centres on Cleo, and her life as a live-in servant for a middle class family. The protagonist and her place in both society and the family structure is established early on. Cuarón follows Cleo as she washes clothes on the roof. As the camera pans round, viewers see Cleo is just one of many maids doing exactly the same thing. The filmmaker is telling us that Cleo’s position was the norm rather than the exception during this period in Mexico.

As the film progresses, Cleo’s relationship with the different members of the family develops. The protagonist’s personal life is also delved into, with a strand about a romantic liaison and the outcome of this. There is a lot going on in the background of the film, such as stunts and student protests. Yet Cuarón keeps the focus on Cleo and the family. The themes of privilege, class, and race are present, yet the filmmaker does not really make any comment about this.

Cleo is a sympathetic protagonist for sure, but her story is not told with a removed affection. There is a sequence later in the film at the hospital which is startling and very well executed. Cleo is portrayed as individual in her own right – one with her own dreams – despite her selfless persona. Yet whilst her devotion to the family is rewarded by the children’s great affection, her existence is a thankless one. If Cuarón means to say that he appreciates the maid from his own childhood, it feels a little patronising to deem her worthy of this acknowledgement.

That is not to say Roma is a bad film. There is a lot to like about the film in fact. The attention to detail is most impressive, as is Cuarón’s framing at times (the director is also responsible for the cinematography). Performances Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira are great. The drawback of Roma is that it feels like it is meant to be a compliment to its protagonist and people like her, which does not sit well.

Roma is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2018.