In the first of our series of best picture Oscar hustings, here’s the case for Alfonso Cuarón’s novelistic jewel about race, class and culture in Mexico City
The best picture winner can only be Alfonso Cuarón’s glorious and very personal movie Roma, co-produced with Nicolás Celis and Gabriela Rodriguez. This jewel is inspired by his own upbringing in early 1970s Mexico City, and his family’s complex relationship with their beloved live-in maid. The film’s engagement with race, culture and class together with its staggeringly choreographed setpieces and sublimely inspired incidental detail all come together with Yalitza Aparicio’s wonderful lead performance to weave a spell.
Part of it is Cuarón’s miraculously unforced narrative flow. So many movies look like they have come out of screenplay-seminar thinking: three acts, show-don’t-tell, character arc, obstacles surmounted, life-lessons learned. By contrast, Roma just spills out unhurriedly on to the screen, moving this way and that, like the water being patiently sploshed by the maid Cleo on to the tiled driveway under the film’s opening credits. It has an inspired fluency, uncoerced, unmanaged, full of digressive ease.
In its way, this is a very novelistic film, with the accretion of detail you might expect from a Bildungsroman. The experiences of Aparicio’s maidservant character Cleo do not take her on anything as explicit as a personal “journey”, but something more mysterious and internalised. We see what Cleo sees, we wonder what and how she feels, we build up our investment of sympathy with her, and it all leads to a heartrending payoff. I have still never seen the climactic scene clearly – having been semi-blinded by tears each time.
Cleo is a young woman of Mesoamerican heritage working as a live-in maid for a beleaguered upper-middle-class family in Mexico City. Cleo’s personal life is beginning to disintegrate alongside that of her employer, Sofía (Marina De Tavira), mother to four lively kids — though it’s Cleo who has to do the childcare heavy lifting. Cuarón shows, through a hundred little touches, that though their handsomely appointed household is superficially comfortable, the family is, in Tolstoy’s words, unhappy in its own way. The father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is increasingly late home, parks his car with fanatical precision in the driveway in a way that hints at dysfunction and repressed anxiety. Soon he is away on what Sofia tells the children is a business trip but tearfully asks them to write letters to their papa begging him to come home. Meanwhile, Cleo forms a relationship with a dodgy martial-arts enthusiast, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who is less than supportive when she explains she has missed her period.