Alfonso Cuarón​ likes to travel in his films: to outer space in Gravity (2013), to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), to a bleak future world in Children of Men (2006). But in Roma he stays at home, or goes back home: to Mexico, to the past, to the family. The title may not suggest home to many of us: we’re not bound to know that Roma is the name of a neighbourhood in Mexico City, any more than we have to remember that Petty France is in London and Little Italy in New York. But then home isn’t always what we think it is, and while the film’s title has nothing to do with any other literal place, it is more than a name on a map, a piece of personal geography. It is an aspect of a puzzle, a form of shorthand for much the film isn’t saying, perhaps can’t say.

Roma was eloquently berated by Richard Brody in the New Yorker for not telling us enough about its time and place, and above all for not giving its heroine a voice, just submitting her to series of unexplained actions. Brody is right if we think Cuarón is trying to be De Sica or Rossellini (in Bicycle Thieves or Rome: Open City, say), but there is every sign he is trying to be someone and something else: not quite the director he himself has been and not the neo-realist he never was.

The film has been much praised by others, and I think it is a small masterpiece. But it is elusive in many ways. It’s a bit too beautiful, it lingers over its images as if they were jewels or obsessions, and it is very cool about its difficult topics. Those many critics who have found it ‘heartbreaking’ either have easily broken hearts or they weren’t watching.

Written, directed and photographed by Cuarón, the film is in black and white, and opens with an image of what seems be a tiled wall. Credits are palely projected on it, but it’s hard to pay attention to them because the tiles are so interesting. It isn’t a wall, it turns out, it’s a floor, and the camera is looking down at it; only at the end of the sequence does it tilt up to show a long hallway. Meanwhile we see wave after wave of soapy water washing down the screen, repeatedly creating and uncreating the reflection of a skylight in the middle of the floor. At one point a tiny plane crosses this inverted watery heaven. Then we see the person doing the washing. She is the star of the film, Cleo, played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio.

A small figure at the end of the hallway, Cleo puts away her cleaning stuff, walks briskly towards us out of the hallway onto a patio, talks to the dog and enters a room, leaving us to look at some small birds in cages and a bicycle, and generally get a feeling of where we are: in a largish house, concealed from the street, turned inward, as so many Spanish-style Mexican houses are.

A moment later Cleo reappears, crosses the patio and enters a kitchen, where another maid is at work. They speak to each other partly in Spanish and partly in a language we learn is Mixtec – both women come from Oaxaca or nearby. Her companion reminds Cleo that it is time to pick up the youngest child from school, and she heads out to do this. We get to see the rest of the house: large rooms, solid furniture, open space on the ground floor.

The other children arrive, three of them, and the mother. They sit down to lunch, and one of the boys tells a story he has heard that day. A boy threw a water balloon at a soldier and the soldier shot him. ‘What happened?’ another child asks. ‘Well, he died,’ is the answer. ‘His head was blown off.’ There is a murmur of sorrow and sympathy around the table, but no one seems surprised.

Life continues. The children play, the maids do the washing, make the beds, romantic songs play on a tinny radio, the maids sing along. The father comes home a little earlier than usual, everyone is delighted. The whole family with Cleo sits watching a comedy show on television, apparently some sort of Mexican echo of the Three Stooges, and there are many smiles around the room. A happy family. No, a picture of a happy family.

Here it feels as if we might be in one of Buñuel’s several films where a modest and patient portrait of ordinary Mexican life happens to be riddled with surreal moments. There’s a fine one early in Roma, where one of the children, disappointed in a rooftop game with his brother, lies on a raised concrete surface and says he can’t talk because he is dead. Cleo lies down opposite him, and when he finally asks her to talk she says, ‘I’m dead. I like being dead.’ This doesn’t come off as in the least macabre. It just shows she knows how to play on his wavelength.

The family is not as happy as it looks, because the father is having an affair and will soon leave them all for good. But it’s the stereotype that’s wrong, not the total picture. The children don’t know anything yet. What threatens happiness, in the language of the film, is something we have just seen, not the rather conventional storyline. A large car – a Ford Galaxy – appears through the now open door at the end of the hallway, or rather its lights appear, and its monstrous chrome front. The car is almost as wide as the available space, and the driver has a little trouble, bends a mirror against a wall, bumps a fender. We don’t see him, we see the car’s dashboard and an ashtray full of cigarette stubs, and we hear classical music from the car radio. The driver’s repeated attempts to park properly suggest either a poor driver or a person not concentrating. It’s just after this that we see the family welcome the loving father on his return.

I don’t think there is a large comic allegory of failure here, although the scene is funny as well as vaguely threatening. But there is certainly an implied metaphor for something, for what’s not quite manageable in life perhaps, or the scrapes we can’t avoid. And metaphors of this kind, like the repeated images of water (in a sink, in a swamp, in the sea, in buckets thrown at a forest fire) and the reflected plane and the stairway, do finally govern the movie more thoroughly than its plot does. Metaphors and the photographic close reading of faces.

The plot is important mainly for where it allows Cuarón to go: to a country hacienda for Christmas, to a vast field where martial arts are practised, to a Mexico City street where a student revolt is being violently repressed (this is a reference to the so-called Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971), to the delivery room of a hospital, to a beach on the Gulf coast. In the country there is talk of unrest among the locals, and when people shoot for sport they make jokes about guerrilla fighters. In another context we hear a rumour that Cleo’s mother is being dispossessed of her land near Oaxaca. But this is 1971, not 2019, and the dominant mood – this is part of what I find most impressive and most haunting about the movie – is curiously untroubled, as if what now looks like a climate were not a climate but a series of accidents and contingent problems. There is something admirable as well as blinkered about this stance. People get on with their lives in spite of how little power they have over what happens to them. We could feel nostalgic for such a time, and the film certainly documents this nostalgia, even if it doesn’t recommend it.

We might take Roma as the name of this mood as well as that of a neighbourhood. It would then mean urban life at a certain time in a certain place, family, servants, space, car, bilingualism, devotion to children not your own, risk, damage, survival, and a lot more. And all of it centres on Cleo, whose face and walk and gestures are the movie’s main text, the cluster of signs we are invited to read most carefully.

Yalitza Aparicio underacts so wonderfully, does so little with words, that we almost always know what her character is feeling: when she is contented, entertained, worried, frightened. She laughs when she plays games with Adela, her co-worker; she relaxes with the children. She is discreet even in her panic when her waters break – she is expecting a child by one of the martial arts men, who will have nothing to do with her now – and the riot in the streets means she is very late getting to the hospital. The child is stillborn, and here, I think, we actually can’t read her face. She is given the child to hold, and doesn’t want to let go; but what is it she doesn’t want to let go of?

Later she saves two of the children in the family she works for from drowning in the sea – at great risk to herself, since she can’t swim. And at this precise moment, in the midst of everyone’s gratitude and relief, she says of her own baby, ‘I didn’t want it to be born.’ She can’t be wrong, of course, this is her mind and her thought. But her thought may be incomplete, and what the film has taught us about her may allow us to continue it a little. She didn’t know earlier perhaps what it meant to care for another life more than your own. Or if we think of her earlier game with the little boy, she didn’t know why one might become unable to like being dead even in a game. In this respect, Roma joins Children of Men in its preoccupation with the future. There the species is dying, its youngest member is already 18. Here lives are lost and saved. Every loss matters, but loss is not all there is.

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