A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2018

RANK:  #2

ROMA jjjj

2018, No MPAA rating, 135 mins.


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo  /  Marina de Tavira as Sra. Sofía  /  Diego Cortina Autrey as Toño  /  Carlos Peralta as Paco  /  Marco Graf as Pepe  /  Daniela Demesa as Sofi

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón






What a bold and miraculous artistic achievement Alfonso Cuaron's ROMA is, shot exquisitely and with a painterly eye in glorious black and white (he also serves as his own cinematographer) and chronicling a semi-autobiographical drama about his own upbringing in Mexico city.  

The very last film the Oscar winning director made was the spellbinding GRAVITY, a science fiction survival thriller set in outer space, and previous to that he made one of the finest dystopian films ever in CHILDREN OF MEN.  ROMA could not be anymore different from his last two efforts, done with simple, intimate, by nevertheless masterful strokes as a stunningly authentic portrait of a live-in housekeeper working in a middle/upper class family in the early 1970s.  Astoundingly, the filmmaker lovingly crafts a thoroughly intoxicating portal into the microcosm of this family unit set against the larger political and social upheaval that was permeating his country at the time.  ROMO shows Cuaron at the absolute apex of his directorial might, and it's easily his most deeply heartfelt and personal film. 

Cuaron opens his story modestly, but with a hypnotic image of a stone-paved driveway that eventual has soapy water washing over it as the opening credits are shown overtop.  We see tiny reflections here and there of things in the immediate background, and eventually a plane can be spotted in the bubbly water.   It's ultimately telling that Cuaron opens and closes his film with the single image of an plane flying overheard miles in the sky, seeing how he's trying to visually represent, I think, the relative small scale of his story when compared to the larger world around it.  The intro is also important because it serves Cuaron's greatest purpose of trying to explore the more hidden depths of everyday, ordinary people occupying the daily monotony of their lives, which often is not captured in mainstream dramas.  It could easily be said that ROMA lacks a basic plot in terms of easily progressing from point A to B and unavoidably to C and that it's largely episodic, but that's actually the key to its narrative power.  Like the flowing water in the opening images, Cuaron is aiming for evoking the spontaneity of life, which often flows from one unexpected channel to the next.  And once patient viewers allow themselves to surrender to ROMA's free flowing spirit it becomes impossible to break yourself apart from it; Cuaron's film has as much ethereal power to transport you to another time and place as any I've seen. 



In 1970 Mexico City we meet the film's protagonist in Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an amazing new find), who is a working maid living in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of the city, tending after a family consisting of Sofia (Marina del Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four young children.  The overreaching story chronicles Cleo's day-to-day grind of work, which involves cooking, cleaning, watching over the children, and just about every other responsibility asked of a maid.  Overall, Cleo is quiet and reserved, but she dedicates herself to her job with focus and dedication.  Ripples, though, in the happiness of the family that employs her are starting to show,  especially in the marriage of Sofia and Antonio, which seems more strained by the day.  He eventually leaves for a long business trip for Quebec, which is hinted that it could last longer than anticipated, which leaves Sofia tending to her family by herself, albeit with Cleo unwavering assistance.   

Cleo does have a personal life outside of her work, and she manages to fall for a local man named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who seems absolutely fanatical about martial arts (in a creepy scene, he's shown - in one wide shot take and completely in the nude - performing a complex martial arts routine in front of Cleo, who's under covers in bed waiting for her lover to come to her).  The pair have an uneasy union from the start, which culminates in her unwanted pregnancy, but when Fermin essentially disappears from her life it leaves Cleo feeling dejected and facing the prospect of raising a child in poverty without a father.  Sofia kindly reassures her that she will always have a job and home with her family, but when it appears that her own husband might not be returning home at all it sets off a painful chain reaction of growing unease for all. 

Cuaron has made some of the most visually arresting films of the last decade and a half, but he really undoes himself on a level of pure cinematic craft in ROMA, and even though this drama doesn't have the same epic stature of his last two sci-fi films, it nevertheless feels simultaneously insular and large scale in showing the intricacies of the family unit set against the bustling and sometimes foreboding activity of Mexico City, which becomes a character in its own right here.  I think the finest films work on a level of being a pure out of body experience for the viewers, transporting to them worlds either rarely or never seen before to the point where we feel a part of them.  That's how ROMA worked on me, and some of Cuaron's audacious choices throughout - like long takes, an avoidance of close-ups, and no musical score whatsoever - allows for incredible sensory immersion.  There's a meticulous attention to fussy detail in every corner of the screen in ROMA, and the period ambience on display is married nicely to the hallucinatory black and white photography that gives the story a reflective dreamlike quality.  And the film's bravura sound engineering and editing is on par with the largest of blockbusters; Cuaron and company create a mesmerizing sonic environment that makes you feel like you've been dropped into a busy Mexico City street of yesteryear. 

ROMA is at its most potent when it deals with the he minutia of Cleo working and her trying to eek out a life outside of it, and the film manages to have this enthralling push/pull effect of feeling both hushed and frantic at the same time.  Again, Cuaron finds joy in the smaller details that branch out to reveal larger ones, like a seemingly casual moment of Cleo doing laundry on the roof that Cuaron pans away from to show the limitless majesty and scope of Mexico City.  There's an absolutely beautifully rendered moment in a cinema showing Cleo and Fermin on a date that ends with painful results that will haunt her for the rest of the film.  Of course, as Cleo has to deal with the anguish of her pregnancy and medical bills, Fermin is nowhere to be seen, that is until he makes a chilling appearance during a breathtaking, yet haunting sequence that starts mundane enough, but then pulls back to reveal the June 10, 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre that killed 100 people.  Then there's a later scene involving Cleo and the family enjoying a drunken night of New Year's Eve celebrating that turns awfully ugly when a massive forest fire breaks out in the surrounding countryside.   

Despite some of the inherent madness that happens around her, ROMA is really about Cleo and her emotional journey, who starts off the film as a mostly silent maid that steadfastly does her job to a pregnant mother-to-be that's frightened of the future and - when Sofia is forced to deal with her own heartache about her absent husband - becoming a surrogate mother to the family's children when their own mother is struggling to get by.  And what an absolute wonder Yalitza Aparicio is in this role, and she makes one of the most dynamic first feature film performances in many a moon as her beleaguered caregiver.  What's staggering to behold here is that Aparicio was an untrained actor before taking on the role, and usually hiring non actors to play roles in dramas has netted some questionable results (see Clint Eastwood's THE 15:17 TO PARIS), but under Cuaron's watchful eye Aparicio delivers one of the most deeply heartfelt, soulful, and authentically rendered performances of 2018.  Most of the way she communicates feeling in the story is non-verbally, but she occupies a moment late in the film - in an absolutely devastating and emotionally ravaging scene - where you're left in a state of absolute awe that this is an unseasoned performer.  Aparicio is as assured, strong, and confident as any other actress with dozens of years experience on her; she's the film's compassionate and wounded heart. 

My biggest takeaway with ROMA is how truthfully it displays domesticity and how it takes its time to showcase Cleo's own personal story unfold, which has multiple psychological scars to uncomfortably bare.  Even when she has to deal with soul sucking tragedies in her life, she nevertheless finds the inner resiliency to still emerge as a guardian to Sofia and her children, and it's that sense of the larger themes of loss, sacrifice and protection that make ROMA so utterly beguiling.  Cuaron's film is a celebration of life and all of the unrelenting roadblocks that are thrown in along the way, and this sumptuous work deserves big screen consumption.  And yes, this is a Netflix produced and released endeavor, but ROMA represents - more than any other film from 2018 - a work that deserves to be actively experienced in a cinema if possible.  I couldn't imagine, for the life of me, losing myself in Cuaron's magnificent achievement on a small TV screen or - God forbid - on a smart phone or tablet, as doing so would rob ROMA of its enrapturing power.

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