Roma (2018)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/05/18 22:34:50
In the wake of the massive success of his last film, “Gravity” (2013), which received critical raves, earned over $700,000,000 at the box-office worldwide and scored seven Oscars (including two for him personally for Directing and Editing), filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron fond himself in the rarefied position of being able to do pretty much anything he wanted to do for his next project. Oftentimes when filmmakers find themselves in this position, they talk at length about the small and deeply personal projects they would love to tackle but, more often than not, this usually turns out to be just talk and they move on to the next would-be blockbuster. In Cuaron’s case, however, he has taken advantage of this unique opportunity with a vengeance with his long-awaited follow-up, “Roma,” a film that seems to have been designed to give studio heads who would normally be eager to get in business with him advanced cases of heartburn. Here is a film that is a highly autobiographical tale with a narrative that cannot easily be summed up in a sentence or two and is in Spanish to boot, a cast led by someone who has never acted before and has been shot in both black-and-white and in 70MM, the large-screen format that most theaters are no longer equipped to present properly. To make matters even more bewildering, the film is being distributed by Netflix, which means that most of its viewers are going to wind up seeing it at home on their televisions than in theaters. It all sounds like a recipe for an auteurist boondoggle of mythic proportions that could only be avoided if the resulting film turned out to be an unquestioned, one-of-a-kind masterpiece that not only justifies all of its oddball creative decisions but makes you wonder why others don’t try them as well. Strangely enough, that is exactly what has happened in the case of “Roma,” which is quite simply one of the most dazzling, audacious and powerful cinematic experiences of the year.Set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City over the course of roughly a year spanning 1970-71, the film is centered around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman who works as a live-in housekeeper for an upper middle-class family consisting of stay-at-home mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), often-absent physician father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), four rambunctious young children and a dog that poops wherever it feels like. During the day, Cleo, along with fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), cooks, cleans up after the kids and the damned dog and otherwise keeps the house running along and spends her nights living with Adela in a small apartment next to the house. As these jobs go, it isn’t too bad and the kids appear to love her but at the same time, she is always made hyper-aware of her status—when Sofia is irritated with Antonio, whose excuses for his frequent absences are getting sketchier and sketchier, she is quick to take her frustration out of Cleo, even to the point of complaining about her and Adela wasting electricity if they keep the lights on for too long in the evening.
Both Cleo and the family are soon rocked by seismic shifts that change things for them in fundamental way. For the family, it occurs when Antonio, under the guise of yet another “conference,” leaves home in order to move in with his mistress. Although in denial at first, Sofia soon turns to anger and self-pity in ways that cause her to withdraw further and force Cleo to pick up even more of the slack in terms of raising the children. As for Cleo, she has been seeing Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a seemingly nice guy with delusions of becoming a martial arts expert and before long discovers that she is pregnant. When she finally tracks down the elusive Fermin, who has been off “training,” to tell him the news, he coldly rejects both her and his unborn child and threatens to kill both of them if they ever come around again. This is not the last time that Cleo and Fermin will see each other, though it is fair to say that no one could have possibly anticipated the circumstances surrounding their unexpected reunion.
In interviews, Cuaron has stated that the vast majority of “Roma” was inspired by memories of his own childhood growing up in Mexico City in a family run in large part by a housekeeper not unlike Cleo. Even if you didn’t know that going in, it is something that most viewers would immediately pick up on because this is a film that is suffused with the kind of little details that could only come from people who experienced them for themselves—the giddiness of running through the streets to hit the cinema, for example. What is interesting about this is that the film is not just a simple memory piece but a way for Cuaron to examine the undeniable sense of privilege that he and his family had through the eyes of someone who was around to bear witness to those privileges without fully being able to partake in them. There is a lot of inspired social commentary throughout but at the same time, the film also works as an old fashioned melodrama, albeit one in which the darker aspects of the outside world are not kept offscreen. The family may have wealth and prestige but as is made painfully and horrifyingly clear, all of that could possibly be swept away in an instant by forces much greater, things ranging from political unrest to the unstoppable power of nature.
As he has demonstrated in his past films, including “Y Tum Mama Tambien” (2001), “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), still the best of the Potter franchise, “Children of Men” (2006) and “Gravity,” Cuaron is a fan of bet cinematic set pieces in which he brings all of the tools of cinema together to present, generally in long and unbroken takes, sights that are as technically audacious as any put before a movie camera while at the same time remaining as dramatically sound and emotionally resonant as anyone could possibly hope. He has a couple of scenes like that here—one in which a simple trip to buy some baby furniture turns perilous for Cleo when she finds herself stuck in the middle of a civil protest against the repressive government that eventually transforms into a full-scale riot and another in which a childbirth is witnessed from beginning to end in one extended take that becomes an emotional roller-coaster—but Cuaron, acting as his own cinematographer, finds a way of looking at even the most seemingly ordinary of things in a new light, which is, after all, the presumed point of it all. Most of the scenes are done in wide shots that unfold slowly and allow us to fully drink in the surroundings and get a truer sense of what it would be like to walk in Cleo’s shoes for a day. This alone more than justifies Cuaron’s desire to shoot it in 70MM and while the end results look perfectly fine on your television, this is a Netflix release that practically begs to be seen on the big screen, even if an IMAX showing is not in your midst.
In his career, Cuaron has worked with any number of magnetic screen personalities—Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and the entire “Harry Potter” ensemble—and gotten marvelous performances from all of them. Here, he has taken a radically different tack by centering his entire film around someone who has never even appeared in a film before. This is an enormous gamble that could have gone disastrously wrong in any number of ways but, thanks to the selection of Yalitza Aparicio for the role of Cleo, it is one that pays off beautifully. She may not have typical movie star looks but whatever that thing is the movie stars do have—the ability to get people to focus on them for a couple of hours—she has in spades because she is absolutely magnetic here. At the same time, there is never a point when you catch here acting and when it is necessary for her to recede into the background as Cleo does, she does that equally well. Throughout, she presents an indelible portrait of quiet dignity and humanity that is blessedly free of anything remotely resembling condescension. I have no idea if this is the beginning of a career for Aparicio or if this will go down as one of the great one-and-done screen performances but in a year filled with any number of striking screen debuts by new actresses, this is one of the best of the bunch.Look, I am perfectly aware that between the topic, the subtitles, the lack of stars and even the cinematography, watching “Roma” may not strike many as the makings of an entertaining night at the movies. And yet, those who would fail to give it a chance on such a basis would be making a catastrophic mistake because this is a film that give viewers pretty much everything that they could conceivably ask for in a movie. This is a film that not only hits virtually every beat on the emotional spectrum with absolute clarity but does so in an honest and forthright manner. From a visual and technical standpoint, it contains moments in which all of the elements of cinema come together with such precision that it puts most of the big ticket spectacles of recent years to shame. (Again, if you have a chance to see it on the big screen—especially if you are lucky enough to have a 70MM presentation as an option—do not miss it under any circumstances.) The film may more or less tell the story of part of Cuaron’s life but it does so in such a recognizably humane manner that it will almost certainly strike a deep chord in anyone who sees it.
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