No MPAA rating, 135 mins.
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
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.