Telling a small-scale story with the expansive sweep of an epic, Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical film "Roma" draws on his childhood memories of growing up in Mexico City during the early 70's to chart a year in the lives of a middle-class family residing in the small neighborhood of Roma.
We see this story through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in maid and nanny in the home of Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four children. Though caring for the family takes up the majority of Cleo's time, we get glimpses into areas of her life beyond them, including her close friendship with the family cook, Adela (Nancy GarcíaGarcía), and outings with her martial arts-obsessed boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).
Continuing a frequent theme in Cuarón's films, "Roma" examines divisions between social classes, in this case observing the strange in-betweenness of the employer and domestic worker relationship. There's a natural barrier, and like many such relationships, the one between Cleo and her employers lies on a spectrum somewhere between exploitation and genuine affection. Sure, the family is willing to take care of Cleo when the need arises, but in the end that's largely because they're dependent on the physical and emotional labor she provides.
But as the year goes on, there's much that unites Sofía and Cleo, especially when they both end up abandoned by the men in their lives. Fermín disappears on Cleo after she informs him she's pregnant, while nearly simultaneously, Doctor Antonio decides to move out of the family home. Each in her own way, the two women soldier on.
Acting as his own cinematographer, Cuarón films "Roma" in lustrous black-and-white, dwelling in the small, nostalgic details before gradually allowing slivers of Mexico's broader social and political canvas to creep in. But the country's political turmoil remains in the background, affecting the characters only occasionally, as when Cleo gets caught in a student protest that grows violent during one of the film's more suspenseful sequences.
In his impeccably composed widescreen images, Cuarón uses deep-focus and long tracking shots to follow Cleo from room to room and through the city streets. The film's impressive sound design complements the immersive feeling.
A first-time actress, the luminous Aparicio invests Cleo with a quiet strength; with her deeply expressive eyes, she make us feel every emotion even when Cleo chooses not to vocalize them. It's a wonderful, intuitive performance that hopefully will get the recognition it deserves.
In interviews, Cuarón has called "Roma" a tribute to the women who raised him (he dedicates the film to Libo, the nanny who lived with Cuarón's family when he was a child), and what a lovely tribute it is. Supported by Aparicio's beautiful performance, "Roma" draws together the epic and the intimate in the way Cuarón does so well, growing from the sum of its parts into an altogether stunning achievement.