Two-time Oscar winner (Gravity, 2013) Alfonso Cuaron brings us a tale of a family in transition in the early 1970s in Mexico City. Based on Cuaron’s own childhood the center of the film is a live-in maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) as she tends to a large family. We follow Cleo as she gets up early in the morning to wake up what seems like an endless amount of kids. Not only does Cleo take care of the kids during the day, but she is also the one to make sure that they have their baths and put them to bed. Not everything is well with this family as almost from the start we sense a tension between the husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira). Very often this tension is taken out on Cleo, as Antonio yells at her for not cleaning up the dog crap in the car park or Sofia yelling at Cleo because one of the kids has thrown an object and broken some glass in a door. There are also moments where Cleo is seen as part of the family, she sits on the floor and leans on one of the kids on the couch as they watch a comedy on TV.
Cuaron, who not only wrote and directed ‘Roma’ but was also the film’s cinematographer using beautiful black and white film to give the look and feel of 70s Mexico. I lived in Mexico during the 70s, and I can’t tell you just how much I appreciated the accuracy of the look of the streets with political ads on building walls, the posters in the kid’s rooms and the maids washing clothes in cement washing boards on the rooftops. Cuaron perfectly captures the time period right down to the tradesmen walking down the middle of the street drumming up business by shouting who they are and what their trade is.
Most of the film is spent watching Cleo as she tries to keep things as ordinary as possible for the kids as their parent’s marriage crumbles into pieces. We also get to see Cleo have somewhat of private life. Cleo dates a young man, she has friends including her fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia), who is the cook. They laugh and discuss dating all the while mindful that they are servants at the mercy of their employers, who could at a moment’s notice, let them go. It is evident that Cuaron cares about the maids and their lives of servitude.
Cuaron uses an unusual technique to watch his characters interact. People in this family seem to like their distance from each other, and the camera is often place away from them, then as the conversations flow, the camera pans back and forth from the people interacting. This gave the film an interesting feel to it, almost as if we were right there in the room with them. I did get a little tired of the panning, as in my opinion it was used a little too much in a film that is 135 minutes in length.
Yalitza Aparicio gives a strong, moving performance as the soft-hearted Cleo, who loves the kids she takes care of, willing to do anything to keep them happy and safe. It’s a remarkable performance, and Aparicio is on the screen for almost the whole movie. Just about the only time, she’s not on the screen is when Cuaron shows us what is happening on the street outside the family’s house. All more impressive is that this is Aparicio’s first film and I would love to know the story on how Cuaron found her. Her performance is multi-layered, as we get to know Cleo over time, that her life is far more complicated than we ever would imagine.
That this was a passion project for Cuaron is very evident, and the results show on the screen. This is one of the best films of 2018 and is sure to win many a film critic group end of the year awards. Go see this film and fall in love with Cleo and her Mexico, you won’t regret seeing Cuaron’s loving ode to a time and a country that is lost to time.
My Rating: I Would Pay to See it Again
Mike’s Film Rating System from Best to Worst:
1). I Would Pay to See it Again
2). Full Price
3). Bargain Matinee
5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again