“Roma” Movie Review

Do you ever have that one moment or two when you realize that you’re watching something really special unfold before your eyes? If you are unable to find one of them while watching this film, then I don’t know if you’ll ever experience it. This historical black-and-white drama was originally selected for competition at the 70th Cannes Film Festival but was pulled at the last minute due to a dispute with its distributor. It was instead unveiled at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion award. Following a very lengthy festival run over the next few months, in an unprecedented move, the film was released in a large number of theaters beginning on November 21st, 2018, before landing on the streaming service Netflix on December 14th. While Netflix never releases its official numbers, it has reportedly managed to gross over $1.4 million from various specialty theaters, although Mexico’s two largest film chains refused to screen it. Written, produced, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón,  the film has been a passion project for him for virtually his entire career and is said to be roughly 90% autobiographical. After meeting up with executive producer David Linde, the American production company Participant Media was able to pull the funding together and have it shot in the filmmaker’s home country. There was also an incident where the crew was robbed by city workers during filming after a brawl broke out, and the actors were apparently not told everything that would happen from scene to scene. Set in the early 1970s in Mexico, we follow a year in the life of a large middle-class family living in Mexico City. The entire story is told from the perspective of their indigenous live-in housekeeper Cleo, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who constantly tries to find a balance between her work life and her time out of the house. However, when the mother and father’s relationship becomes increasingly strained, she has to step up and take care of the children for an extended period of time. Roma is the rare movie that is hard for me to put down into words. I had heard of Cuarón’s proposed film for quite some time, having been a very big fan of his previous directorial works such as Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mamá También. Hearing that he was returning to some very personal territory was extremely exciting. I had tried my hardest to see this film in a theater before it landed on Netflix because all of the reviews and reactions I read highly encouraged me to do so. However, after spending 135 minutes with this family, I can now firmly say that whichever way you watch it is totally irrelevant, as long as you just watch it. Because Roma is a genuinely beautiful masterwork and one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. And no, I’m not just saying this because of all of the awards season hype that it’s been garnering in the months since its premiere. Rather, the reason why I speak so highly of it is that it is one of those films that actually made me… feel something. While Roma does start off pretty slow and deliberate, it gradually takes hold of you and soon explodes into something that’s both ambitious in scope and intensely intimate in scale. There are at least three scenes, all of them occurring in the back half, that conjured up a wide range of complex emotions that I don’t ever think I’ll be able to properly articulate. It’s clear that Cuarón is coming from a deeply felt place in his life, dedicated to his real nanny Libo. Yet he still offers a universal resonance with its story and never lets nostalgia get in the way of anything. One of the best things he did was use a local cast, made up mostly of non-professionals. Yalitza Aparicio may have never acted before, but she delivers one of the best, most towering, and sincere performances from any actress this year. Previously trained as a pre-school teacher in a small village, she brings a natural empathy and radiant warmness to the children. It’s truly unique to see the film unfold through Cleo’s perspective, as she not only puts up with harsh difficulties outside the house but also observes the children’s reaction to everything. Opposite her is Marina De Tavira as Sofia, the struggling matriarch of the family. While she clearly loves her family, she constantly worries about the status of her marriage and how that could affect them. As a result, she frequently lashes out on impulse, one night drunkenly telling Cleo, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” The children, played by Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortine Autrey, and Carlos Peralta, are surprisingly great and empathetic as well. Two other standouts are Nancy García as the other housemaid Adela, who also consulted on the Mixtec dialogue, and Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín, Cleo’s problematic boyfriend. Meanwhile, from a pure filmmaking perspective, Roma is a film made completely in Alfonso Cuarón’s own original voice. When his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki couldn’t come onboard due to scheduling, the director had to fill in the role as his own cinematographer. And the results are absolutely astonishing, utilizing a 6K 65 mm camera to capture 1970’s Mexico in amazing widescreen. Many of the scenes are told through extensive, fluid long-takes, often centered in the exact same spot throughout the ordeal, making it feel like we’re observers inside a vivid memory. The stark black-and-white imagery also helps to give it a sense of timelessness but still make it feel like a faded event from the past. Cuarón also continues his career-long tradition of editing his own movies, this time in collaboration with Adam Gough. Cuts are very sparse throughout the film, but the ones that are there feel extremely calculated and purposeful. It also works to let many of the actors say a lot using simply their body language or facial expressions. Interestingly, there is no musical score or soundtrack in the movie at any point. Instead, the director utilizes state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound systems to capture nearly everything in its audio. Whether it’s something like soap on a dish, an airplane flying overhead, or daily vendors in a suburban street, it makes the whole experience even more immersive. The choice of no soundtrack also helps to better plant the viewer in any environment the characters are in, whether it’s in a store during the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre or on a lovely beach in Tuxpan. As cliche as it may sound, we’re right there with Cleo wherever she goes. However, because it’s such an intensely personal film for the filmmaker, it can be relatively understandable if some audiences aren’t as taken away by the story. It’s worth questioning how many people are truly willing to sit down for a black-and-white, 2-hour and 15-minute film about a Mexican family and their housekeeper that’s subtitled almost entirely in Spanish. But if you know what you’re getting into, it’ll practically be impossible not to be blown away by everything going on. Perhaps the director’s best work yet, Roma is a beautiful, intimate, and fundamentally human masterpiece of cinema. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of the medium, and we are so unbelievably lucky to have him be able to tell stories like this to the world. It absolutely deserves all of the awards it will inevitably be nominated for, and Yalizta Aparicio is a genuine discovery. This is a film that has left me inspired as a hopeful filmmaker, both in its immaculate craft and tough-but-tender character examination. I can only hope that I can somehow measure up to this standard, and others like me can share the same feeling.


1 thought on ““Roma” Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: The 20 Best Films of 2018 | Geek's Landing

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