I have a confession to make before getting into this review. I actually saw Roma a month or so ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which is a theater here in Toronto. Upon first viewing, I fell in love with this film immediately. The acting, the cinematography, the set design; it was all marvelous. Unfortunately, university commitments forced me to push writing this review. With school over, and Roma debuting on Netflix, I was finally able to watch this movie again and render a fully-formed opinion on Alfonso Cuarón’s latest project.
In Hollywood, rarely do you get to see a director make a truly “personal” film. Unlike the typical cookie-cutter “blockbuster” films that run the show in the entertainment capital of the world, these “personal” films usually squeeze in on a small budget but have a director who is determined to tell their story. Last year, it was Guillermo del Toro and The Shape of Water. This year, it is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black-and-white, foreign-language masterpiece that will undoubtedly be the one to beat in the competition for best film of 2018.
Set in the early 1970s, the film is a semi-autobiographical take on Cuarón’s upbringing in Mexico City, and follows the life of a live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family. The title refers to the Colonia Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City.
Roma is not a traditional film. I mean this in the sense that, while the story has a three act structure, it is also a loose interpretation of Cuarón’s own childhood, so not a lot technically happens in the film’s 2+ hour runtime. But an always moving narrative was never meant to be the focal point of the film but rather, Roma follows the members of a Mexican family over the course of 1970 to 1971.
The story is told through the eyes of Cleo, played brilliantly by first time actor, Yalitza Aparicio, the family’s dedicated indigenous nanny who spends her days catering to every need the family has. In her role, she balances the workload of the family with her budding social life that involves sparking a relationship with martial artist Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Through Cleo, we also experience the life of her employers, with the main focus being on the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira). When she is not raising her four children, she is covering up for their absentee father Antonio, who is clearly cheating on his wife and the strains on their marriage plays a large part in the background of Cleo’s life.
This is where the beauty of Roma reveals itself. In both stories, problems develop and – even though they belong to different classes in society – the stories of Cleo and Sofia intertwine, showcasing that they have both fallen victim to failed relationships but together, can rebuild themselves to be better, especially for the four young children they both care for. Cuarón crafts a visualization of what Mexican womanhood represented in the 1970s while also blurring the line between poverty and privilege. Amidst the pain, loss and joy felt by Cleo and Sofia, Cuarón’s narrative explores how, through maturing in such a “patriarchy-driven” time in Mexico, a woman changes for the better, not only through the climaxes of life, but through the smaller, softer moments as well.
It was a bold film to make to say the least. For a studio to back a black-and-white, foreign-language film that chooses to linger on a mundane work experience rather than divert to a police chase heard faintly in the background, it was clear that something about Roma was special. And visually, Roma is masterwork. Cuarón himself actually acted as cinematographer, in addition to writing, directing and editing the feature. Every scene is meticulously designed to the smallest detail and upon my second viewing of the film, there were things I noticed that I had not seen after my first watch. Cuaron’s framing of each scene is exquisite, wherein the audience can watch Roma several times and still find a new trinket that Cuarón purposefully included but could not be seen by the unfocused.
Not only that, but Roma is a film where multiple viewings are required to fully grasp the intricate allegories and prefigures that Alfonso Cuarón textures into his story, with plot threads seen in the background not being able to be fully understood until you watch the film again. The way Cuarón pans around the set, giving the audience an uninterrupted moment of every single thing occurring is astounding as he showcases something that could be considered throwaway material but manages to tie it all together by the time the film ends.
Roma is Alfonso Cuaron’s best film to date. After demonstrating that he can tangle with wizards, fight for the future of mankind and return a woman stranded in space back to earth, Cuarón returned to film with a small yet deeply personal story that acts as an ode to the housekeep who raised him following his own father’s desertion of his family. Roma details both the high and low points of one’s life, never shying away from the quieter moments for something more bombastic. 1970s Mexico depicts a broken world and through Cleo, the audience witnesses a near-broken family just trying to navigate through such troubling times. But Cuarón never allows for cliché rich family/poor housekeeper moments to occur. He breaks down the barrier between rich and poor, demonstrating that class does not matter and that people are more alike than they believe. Phenomenally acted, directed, edited and visualized, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón at his best and will go down as one of the best films of the year.
Rating – 10/10