YALITZA APARICIO portrays Cleo in ‘Roma.’.
(photo credit: ALFONSO CUARÓN)
If you’ve been following the hype surrounding Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Roma, and wondering if it can possibly live up to what you’ve heard about it, the answer is: Yes. It’s a remarkable film, both intimate and epic, that is moving and often surprising.
Roma, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and virtually every year’s-end critics’ prize, opened in theaters on December 13 and will be available on Netflix starting December 14. Some are saying it could be the first film not in English to win a Best Picture Oscar.
Cuarón is part of the trio of wildly successful Mexican directors – the other two are Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) – who have dominated Hollywood and the Oscars for the past few years. Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar for Gravity. With Roma he returns to his Mexican roots in a black-and-white drama set in the early 1970s in the middle-class neighborhood from which the film takes its title. It is the story of one particular household, and mainly of the household’s housekeeper, Cleo (non-professional actress Yalitza Aparicio), an uneducated young woman who speaks to her friend in the Mestizo dialect and to the family in Spanish. Through her eyes, we watch the family unravel as she faces her own joys and tragedies.
But through this very personal story, which Cuarón has said was inspired by the housekeeper who raised him and to whom he has dedicated the film, we also see an epic canvas of 1970s Mexico. I visited Mexico the year after which the story is set, and what I saw on screen is just what I remember: a lively mixture of crowded streets, peddlers selling toys and treats, lovely homes of the well-to-do, slums sitting on unpaved muddy roads, beautiful beaches and always the hint of some wild violence not far off.
Cleo is no paragon of virtue, and the family that employs her are not villains. Nothing here is black and white, except the color scheme of the film itself. What is clear is that Cleo, who has raised the children alongside their mother, is part of the family; their destinies and fortunes inextricably linked.
THE MOTHER, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), is an intelligent woman who is preoccupied by the increasingly long absences of her husband, a doctor. It gradually becomes clear to everyone in the household that he has abandoned them.
The four children adore Cleo, and she feels the same about them. But they are boisterous kids and Cleo can never forget for a moment that she is there to clean up after them. We don’t get much of a sense of who the children are — this is really Cleo’s story — except for a lovely scene in which the youngest boy tells Cleo that before he was born, he was a fighter pilot and it was terrifying. I wondered whether that kid was based on the director.
Cleo has a life of her own that the family only gets glimpses of, including a lover, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who is involved in martial arts with a scary intensity and turns out to be a dangerous guy.
The film is punctuated by extraordinary set pieces, including a night-time forest fire outside a resort home on New Year’s Eve; a mystical, outdoor martial-arts lesson given by an expert; and, most memorably, the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, in which about 120 student demonstrators in Mexico City were killed by soldiers. This last incident unfolds as the characters are inside a furniture store. The violence gets closer and gradually invades the store itself, where it impacts Cleo’s fate profoundly.
In addition to the understated, beautifully observed script and extremely natural performances, Roma features beautiful cinematography by Cuarón himself, which is so strong that the images tell the story in many scenes. Shots are often framed so that many characters other than the protagonists are visible, reminding us that there are many other stories to be told here. It will look great on Netflix on your computer or television, but see it in a theater if you can.
Perhaps it is no accident that the film is named Roma, because in addition to being the name of the neighborhood in which the film is set, it also evokes the Italian neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, which took place mainly in Rome. Like these Italian directors, Cuarón has an eye for finding beauty and grace in unlikely places, and with Roma he has created a film that is a worthy successor to these neorealist masterpieces.