Roma: A Film Review

Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece

Roma (Netflix Films — 2018)

In the history of the Academy Awards no movie has ever won both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Roma should.

With his eighth feature-length film Alfonso Cuarón delivers his masterpiece. Roma, released in a limited theatrical run on November 21 and with Netflix streaming available on December 14, blends the raw personal filmmaking of Y Tu Mamá También with the technical brilliance of Children of Men and then adds a healthy dollop of European art cinema influence, especially Fellini’s 8 ½. You’re going to want to see it on the big screen. It’s achy splendor demands it.

What’s most striking about the film is its handsome cinematography, captured in crisp black-and-white by Cuarón himself. Here Cuarón offers his trademark long take aesthetic but with none of the flashy execution characterizing some of his earlier work. Instead, he relies on restrained simple shots, foregrounding his characters against a busy urban background. This long exposure to the film’s characters, uninterrupted by distracting cuts, welcomes the viewer to deliberately soak up the story as if they too are experiencing everything that is on screen. It’s a powerful, visceral, and effective style. Particularly during the emotionally pummeling climatic scene.

All the technical mastery in the world, however, can’t save a film without a compelling story and gripping characters. Roma delivers on both counts, telling the story of a young Mexico City family in crisis, saved by the selfless service of a domestic worker named Cleo, played touchingly by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. Aparicio’s performance is also Oscar worthy, an extended meditation on human endurance in the face of senseless suffering. Cleo juggles not only the acrimonious breakup of the family she so lovingly serves, but also her own personal exigencies. Her behavior throughout the film is a testament to patient, stoic resilience. She indulges her sorrows only so far as to emerge from their pain a stronger and better person. Aparicio’s subdued performance invites the audience to identify with Cleo’s struggles and to benefit from her stirring humanity.

Cleo’s supporting cast, the bourgeois family she works for, is also superb. Marina de Tavira’s character, Sofia, the mother negotiating newfound single motherhood after the abandonment of her husband, un pinche cabrón de la chingada if there ever was one, is particularly great. Her understandable mood swings from dejection, to lashing anger, to acceptance and endurance are rousing and, constrained by Cuarón’s carefully unhurried direction, never veer into the melodramatic. The family’s story of struggle and conflicting kinship is at once universal and deeply personal.

Roma is a triumphant film of nostalgic melancholy with mild Felliniesque turns of social comedy and human absurdity. Though in essence a tragic film, dusky shadows of hope flourish within each of its haunting black-and-white frames. This hopeful nature is most apparent in the contrast between the opening and closing images. The film opens with a claustrophobic and choked shot of the dark floor of the family’s garage. Caurón holds here for an extended period as Cleo’s wash and rinse covers the entire shot. Suds collect and as the washing waters still the reflection of a passenger jet soars overhead. Here the liberating symbol of air travel is obscured by ceaseless quotidian domestic work and an inhibited and bowed framing. The film also closes with Cleo’s domestic work but with a wide, upward looking and aspirational long-shot of Cleo ascending a staircase, now that much closer to the bright daylight sky and flight patterns that opened the film. It’s as if all the hurt and tragedy she has endured has somehow empowered her to move forward, upward, with a broader and more open perspective.

Shantih Shantih Shantih.

For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.

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