Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
(subtitled: Spanish, Mixteco)
The Handmaid’s Tale
After the stratospheric exhilarations of Gravity (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s next feature-length mission could hardly be more down-to-earth. In fact it’s hard to think of something more diametrically opposed, confirming Cuarón as a director with remarkable breadth in two consecutive projects. By comparison, its set-up is small-scale, humble. And yet it might just hit you with the same universal impact.
Mexico City, the early seventies. We’re with a comfortably well-off family, the loosely unfolding tale revolving around their maid, Cleo, and how events in her personal life intertwine with theirs. She happily does their bidding, cooking for the children, tidying, clearing up dog crap from the drive. She’s their deferential helper, but more importantly, a true friend.
The first thing that strikes you is the cinematography. In crisp black and white, from the opening scenes and throughout, it forges a consistently beautiful image. Utilising a subject that could, on paper at least, seem workaday, in this style of high definition monochrome it’s so satisfying it occasionally seems to sparkle like silver. Slow tracking shots follow the performers, their organic movements always perfectly composed within an incrementally shifting frame.
Headed up by Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the acting is uniformly naturalistic and entirely convincing for it. In her first role, to lead a film with such subtlety is an amazing achievement. But it’s a wholly authentic ensemble around her, from the stressed matriarch (Marina de Tavira), to workmate Adela (Nancy Garcia), not to mention all four kids. The screenplay takes its time, slowly building up the characters and their interrelations, drawing you into engagement without you even really noticing.
Male roles figure so little in terms of screen time as to be conspicuous for their absence. Their physical presence may be mostly off-stage, but how the women are forced to cope in the wake of their actions creates the core dramatic landscape. And modern masculinity is not reflected well. These are men who cannot handle their responsibilities, or even begin to face up to them. Selfish, immature, absconding.
The drama of the third act is all the more powerful for the unfussy way in which it unfolds, and the emotional investment that’s been carefully constructed in the viewer beforehand. Ultimately it’s a bittersweet story with deeply traumatic moments tempered by gold nuggets of kindness and truth. And as expressive and thoughtful as the morale is – that you have to hold onto the genuine love and care that you find in life, wherever that may be – it’s emphasised in the visual echoes that neatly bookend the film. A tempest of change has whirled through the family’s villa, but order might just be resetting. Perhaps. Roma is a visually exemplary, gently devastating tirade against domestic patriarchy, and a tribute to the caring strength of womanhood.
★ ★ ★ ★