The idea of an influential director focusing a major film on the torments of a humble servant may seem outlandish. But that's precisely what Alfonso Cuarón has accomplished with Roma, a prizewinning movie about a Mexican family and especially about the family's dedicated nanny. He's created a deeply touching story, as dense as a good novel, as memorable as a monument.
Dipping like a novelist into his own history, Cuarón recalled a teen-aged indigenous woman who went to work for his family around 1970 at their home in Roma, a prosperous Mexico City neighbourhood. As scriptwriter as well as director, he set out to recreate the atmosphere of that time and especially that teenaged girl.
After a search for someone like her, he struck gold in Yalitza Aparicio, a teenaged teacher who had never acted but was willing to try. He cast her as Cleo, the main role, a performer whose silence is filled with a stoic serenity -- and an attractive, warm expression.
Cuarón encourages the audience to read Cleo's unspoken thoughts (he's also the director of photography). Why is she so silent? What bothers her? We watch her for a long period, wondering why she's so solemn. Does she take her nanny duties too seriously? Is she hurt because the master of the house shouts at her that she's not adequately cleaning the floors? Cleo sounds a serious problem when she reveals that she hasn't had her period for a while. She went off with a friend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and ended up pregnant. When she tells him, Fermín simply leaves. When she reminds him again, he explodes in a terrifying rage. He tells her he'll kill both her and the baby if she raises the subject again. He believes she's to blame, not him.
Later, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the woman of the house, tells her what sounds like the grim truth: "No matter what they tell you -- women, we are always alone." Sofia's husband, an officious doctor, has been on leave for what he explains is research in Quebec, and later in Ottawa. In truth, he's been spending time with his mistress. Soon the children know their father has gone, and won't be coming back.
When Cleo knows she's pregnant, she asks Sofia, "Are you going to fire me?" Sofia says no, and makes sure Cleo has a good doctor. Months later, with the baby due, Cleo and Teresa (Verónica García), Sofia's elderly mother, visit a furniture store to buy a crib. There's a commotion outside and everyone rushes to the window to watch a riot squad attacking student protesters. One youth is pursued into the store and killed. That refers to a real event (the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 1971, in which scores of demonstrators died.) Cuarón doesn't bother to explain, as if Mexico City had that sort of thing happening all the time.
That's one of three spectacular scenes that contrast sharply with the intimate style that dominates most of the story. The other two are a riveting and powerful baby-delivery process in a hospital and a frightening beach scene in which the children's lives are threatened. Each of them brings a rush of excitement to the audience.
This is a triumph for Cuarón, made possible by Netflix. For the sake of movies in future, both Cuarón and Netflix should learn from this obvious success.