Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Verónica García, Nancy García García, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Daniela Demesa, Marco Graf
Every so often a foreign language film comes along that really grabs an English-speaking audience’s attention. Whether it’s the cultural differences, some people’s dislike of having to read subtitles or some other reason that usually puts people off, it’s quite challenging overall for a foreign language film to appeal to a mainstream English language audience. But given the chance (and plenty of word-of-mouth), one can slip through prejudices and/or a limited cinematic release and become the must-see story that it deserves to be. Is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma one of those rare exceptions?
Based on true events from Cuarón’s own childhood, Roma is a nine-month snapshot in the life of a young housemaid, Cleo (Aparicio), and the family whom she works for. Set in 1970-71, it includes a backdrop of the Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971 and the lead-up to the event, including the martial arts training of young Mexican men. Cleo finds herself in trouble and her employer’s family take pity on her, finding her situation not too dissimilar from their own.
Serving as writer, cinematographer and director, Cuarón’s fingerprints are all over Roma from the very first scene. You will quickly adapt to his eye and fully get on board not only with the story that Cuarón the writer is telling, but the story that Cuarón the cinematographer (and by extension director) is telling. It quickly becomes clear that he has been waiting a long, long time to tell this very personal and very relatable story, because the care he has taken over not only what you see but how you see it is nothing short of masterful. The storyline at first seems minimal, a brief (in the grand scheme of things) moment in the lives of a handful of people, but the characters and the wonderfully talented cast who portray them make it what it is, and that’s the story of some people we’ve never known going through a traumatic time almost forty years ago that is utterly relatable and completely timeless.
Cuarón’s already a well-known and sought-after director, however in Roma he truly demonstrates his talents as an all-round filmmaker. His last directorial offering was 2013’s Gravity, a fantastic film with great cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (who was originally going to work on Roma but was unavailable in the end). Cuarón is clearly very capable of collaborating successfully, however it’s worked out well that he’s been able to tell his story through his own eyes. Those eyes create scenes through camerawork that is mostly slow and steady, even when the story ramps up, allowing the events captured to literally take centre stage, any action shots or quick camera movements rendered unnecessary. Cuarón’s framing is just so, allowing the audience to feel like we may have once been a part of the characters’ lives, like a memory, just as Cuarón used his memories to create Roma. His choice to film in black and white adds an extra feeling of nostalgia.
As mentioned, Cuarón’s cast are wonderful in their roles. Aparicio is beautiful as the naïve yet strong Cleo, her ability to make our affections effortlessly grow for her as the film takes us through nine months of her life nothing short of outstanding. Add in an incredible supporting cast, such as de Tavira as Cleo’s employer Sofia, and Roma becomes so much more than just a film – it becomes a true story of a family that is more than blood, a beautiful story of the growing strength of women going through hard times partly caused by the men in their lives. Sofia in particular has a depth that de Tavira explores implicitly, allowing Sofia’s feelings to be brought to the surface through her relationship with her children and with Cleo. Even the child actors are fantastic, talented in ways many adult actors wish they could be.
Roma is one of those films that can be difficult to write about, because it’s one that you have to see in order to understand. It drags Netflix back into the debate on how much the streaming service is negatively affecting cinema, but what’s to say Roma wouldn’t have had the success and acclaim it has without it and the audiences it’s available to? In this case, Netflix has arguably done cinema a favour, and to say that it could be Cuarón’s magnum opus wouldn’t be far off the mark. I waited a few days to write this review because I needed the film to settle in my head a little more and really think about what I saw. It would be easy just to rave about it but it’s also important to understand why it needs to be raved about, the ultimate reason being how personal it feels and therefore how relatable it is in many aspects. In the time I have waited to write this, Roma has been nominated for ten (TEN!) Academy Awards, something rare for any film let alone a foreign language film. It’s an absolute triumph and completely deserved for Cuarón, his crew and his cast.
Finally, I will leave you with Cuarón’s own words on Roma that sum it up perfectly:
“There are periods in history that scar societies and moments in life that transform us as individuals. Time and space constrain us, but they also define who we are, creating inexplicable bonds with others that flow with us at the same time and through the same places. Roma is an attempt to capture the memory of events that I experienced almost fifty years ago. It is an exploration of Mexico’s social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven to this date and, above all, it’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.” (IMDb)