The film that should have won the best picture Oscar, Alfonso Cuarón’s sublime meditation on the life of an indigenous maid in 1970s Mexico city is filmmaking at its best.
From the opening shot of water sloshing over a tiled floor, you know this film will show the beauty in the mundane. Like flies on the wall, we follow the day-to-day life of maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) as she cooks, cleans, hand washes clothes, looks after the house-bound dog and also Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf) and Sofi (Daniela Demesa), the children of employer Sophia (Marina de Tavira) and her absent husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).
Cleo and fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García) exist in a half world. They are loved by the family, central to its functionality both emotionally and physically but they are not family. They’re not badly treated but we see moments where their place in the hierarchy, their lack of power and agency, is clear.
Filmed in Mexico City, in Colonia Roma, the story is based on Cuarón’s childhood and the family maid Liboria Rodríguez and it feels like an homage to the women who raised him as well as to the city. As the characters emerge from their compound-like home, we see the texture of Mexican life in the periphery. Never dogmatic, it nevertheless provides the social context of life at the time, particularly for women and indigenous people. Student riots, weddings, planes flying overhead, rooftop laundries, dusty roads, street vendors, brass bands are all inconsequential moments that provide richness to the story of an ordinary life.
It all feels unrushed and authentic and reading up on some of the background to the film, it seems Cuarón did what he could to make each aspect genuine. It was shot on location with much of the furniture in the home sourced from Cuarón’s family. It was also filmed in chronological order and Cuarón was the only one who knew the entire script; the actors would receive their lines for the day on the morning of shooting to better evince genuine emotions and reactions. And in one of the most powerful scenes in the hospital, the doctors and nurses are real workers, not actors.
Aparicio is excellent in her first film, embodying the strength and vulnerability of her character. She is contrasted well with the brittle power and fragility of Sophia and her mother Teresa (Verónica García). Cuarón took over cinematography and it is sublime; his attention to details, the tonal beauty of the black-and-white, the camera point of view that makes us silent observers of a past world that still resonates with today.
If you can, see this on a big screen. You won’t regret it and you won’t quickly forget it.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.