There is a certain grace to the way Alfonso Cuarón leaves the inner life of his nanny guarded in Roma, as if vouchsafed by the passage of time. It was her right to keep it from her employers even if her reasoning was a matter not of politics but of temperament. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) was inspired by a domestic servant employed by Cuarón’s family when he was growing up in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s. Her reticence is well-founded; when her peer Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) uses martial arts to express himself, all he can articulate is violence. Cleo’s reserve is an acknowledgement of powerlessness. Roma is about absent fathers.
In Children of Men, having a baby saves the world; in Gravity, the loss of a child gives Sandra Bullock’s grieving astronaut the composure to return to the earth: Cuarón invests maternity with dignity and valor. This gives him the virtue of being neither recently nor fashionably woke—though I think he sometimes mortifies his male flesh in his handling of male characters, especially the head of the family that Cleo works for (Fernando Grediaga): a vehicle for working off rage, like the family car. This tendency, at worst, jolts us out of Cleo’s story. But I think it also clarifies the director’s flair for melodrama. (Fair warning: some of the examples I’ll give are spoilers.)
For starters, Cleo’s glass breaks during a New Year’s toast—a bad omen already since she is pregnant with Fermín’s child. She is at a gathering of indigenous servants while their masters above get decadently drunk: the white revelers’ fireworks kindle a forest fire. The conflagration is, in itself, beautiful both graphically and as a device—until a mawkish Nero plants himself in front of the camera and singes all subtlety when he sings.