roma_ver2STARS4.5Roma is a portal into the past, a cinematic observation that relocates you to another time and place.  Director Alfonso Cuarón has taken us on an odyssey before. Whether it be children’s viewing (A Little Princess), a coming of age tale (Y Tu Mamá También), a fantasy episode (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), dystopian thriller (Children of Men), or science fiction (Gravity), he transports us.  Roma is no different in that the filmmaker brings us on another expedition.  Yet this one is a deeply personal account inspired from his own childhood.  He is also the writer, co-producer, co-editor, and cinematographer.  The film is nothing more than an observation in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the early 1970s.  It is the point of view that makes this portrayal so unique.  For it is all seen through the eyes of the domestic servant, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Cleo works for mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira ) and Sofia’s rarely seen doctor husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  Is there some tension between the married couple?  It’s suggested but not altogether clear.  They have four young children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta) in the household, along with Sofia’s mother (Verónica García) and their other maid named Adela (Nancy García).  Cleo has a boyfriend named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  He’s a revolutionary that gets involved in the Corpus Christi massacre.  Adela has a suitor as well named Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza).  That extended cast sounds like the beginnings of a telenovela.  Yet this is a decidedly more unvarnished depiction of life.

Right from the start, Cuarón makes it known that this is going to be a visual feast.  Water splashes across a stone driveway.  The camera immobile as the fluid advances and recedes over the screen.  A broom emerges to wash the surface.  This continues for a while.  The languid intro highlights the drudgery of her chores but it also provides a lovely backdrop on which to show the names of the cast and crew.  The images all in black and white immediately puts you in the past, but it also features a stark contrast that captivates the viewer throughout the drama.  This is a good time to mention that there is no soundtrack to Roma, but it has a sonic essence that includes diegetic music from people listening on radios, along with indistinct chatter and background murmurs. The movie debuted on Netflix December 14, but PLEASE if at all possible see it in a theater where the exquisite sound design immerses you into the fabric of every scene. I’ve only described the intro, mind you.  That is merely the beginning of an impressive collection of images and sounds that stimulate the senses.

Roma is such a thoughtfully filmed project.  The day to day developments of Cleo’s life are detailed.  She cleans the house, cooks their meals takes the kids to school, tucks them into bed and wakes them up in the morning.  It seems deceptively mundane, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Water is introduced during the opening credits but the transparent liquid is a tableau that will turn up over and over again.  Whether it is utilized during her daily chores, a sudden hailstorm, a pregnancy or a climactic trip to the beach, the appearance each time highlights the spectacle.  This is the lovingly assembled portrait of a life.  Roma refers to Colonia Roma which is a neighborhood in Mexico City but it also conveys the Italian name for Rome.  I suspect then the double meaning is no accident. Cuarón works in the visual vocabulary of Italian directors like Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, particularly their work during the late ’40s/early ’50s.  Uniting all of these artistic elements is leading lady Yalitza Aparicio who is an indigenous Mixtec woman.  Earlier I mentioned that the size of the cast was reminiscent of a Spanish soap opera.  Yet her dark brown skin at odds with the fair-skinned actresses that usually play the housekeeper in telenovelas.  She gives an utterly authentic performance.  There’s a reason why she is so genuine.  I’m told, with the exception of Marina de Tavira, the actress who plays the family matriarch, Cuarón used an entire cast of non-actors.  It’s risky, but the gamble pays off.  He makes a lot of stylish decisions in this beautiful record of his youth.  Roma is the very story of humanity and as such, it moved me.


10 Responses to “Roma”

  1. Something which I also loved was the amount of restraint there is when it comes to the camera if you compare it to other movies he made like Gravity and Children of Man. Usually slowly panning or static.


  2. I’ll have to keep my eye out for a theatrical release. I really want to see this but with your emphasis on the visual style I have to try ans avoid the small-screen alternative. I guess if it comes down to it, Netflix it is. This really sounds like a winner


  3. Top 10 on direction alone. I found myself more enamored with this than I did Gravity, to be honest.


  4. This was a beautiful story, done in black and white. A true to life account of one woman’s life. The scene at the beach was my favorite. A true masterpiece. 4 1/2 stars


  5. Lots of movies start good and end lousy. This one does the opposite. Put up with the choppy narrative style for the first hour and a quarter and the apparent absence of any real editing and you’ll be treated to a glimpse into the lives of what-seem-to-be real people of a sort that gets put on the screen only a few times (e.g. “A Separation”) in a generation and confirms something you learned a long time ago but forgot: what actually happens is different from and whole lot more interesting than the cooked conflicts screenwriters come up with to legitimize their social prejudices. For all the incidents that seem extraneous to the story though or that go on way too long, who’d have the nerve to take any of them out? since what they add up to turns out to be as special as it is.


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