From the very first frame of “Roma” you know you are seeing something unique to modern filmmaking. Not necessarily unique to cinema as a whole. As I watched, flashes of Fellini and Tati constantly came to mind. But seeing this level of visual and narrative craftsmanship is a rarity these days.
Alfonso Cuarón’s intensely personal “Roma” is a semi-autobiographical reflection on growing up in early 1970s Mexico City. The film’s title is a reference to the West-Central neighborhood Colonia Roma and Cuarón puts a ton of effort in capturing its energy and vibrancy. It truly is a movie of detail with each gorgeous black-and-white shot framed like a richly detailed memory begging to be examined. It’s a tapestry of individual compositions skillfully woven together by a narrative that has far more heart than it may first appear.
The film focuses on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid and nanny for a bustling upper-middle class family. Cuarón isn’t as much interested in narrative as he is conveying Cleo’s personal story – her life, her nature, her routines. Much like Xavier Beauvois’ “The Guardians” from earlier this year, Cuarón puts a visual emphasis on her work, capturing every chore and the effort she puts into each of them. It may sound mundane but Cuarón is deftly building her character despite the absence of a traditional narrative.
This family is a significant part of Cleo’s life. In fact there are only a handful of scenes where she is apart from them. Whether taking the kids to school, making an unexpected hospital visit, spending New Year’s at a countryside hacienda, or (in one of the film’s very best scenes) buying furniture in 1971 as the bloody clash between protesting students and Los Halcones erupted. Through Cuarón’s eyes and unknowingly to her, Cleo is a stabilizing force for this family especially when they threaten to unravel after a family crisis. And on a smaller scale the turmoil that festers within their home is an interesting mirror image of the societal unrest outside. It’s a striking metaphor that doesn’t go unnoticed.
The Cleo character is inspired by Cuarón’s childhood nanny Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. She worked for his family for decades and they maintain a close relationship to this day. She has even made cameos in his other Mexican-made films. One of the many things Cuarón’s camera does is accentuate the very essence of her character – her humility, her compassion, her insecurities. But just as important is the way he captures her experience. In many ways Cleo is defined by her experiences and she is much more than simply an avatar for Cuarón’s memories.
Cuarón also uses his cinematic canvas to paint an energetic portrait of the political and social landscape of the time. The film bursts with vibrant street sounds of kids playing, the shouts of vendors, and honking car horns. He uses the canvas to illuminate different areas in and around the city – the family’s cozy residential area, the lively downtown, the muddy slums on the outskirts of the city. And none of these arresting images wastes an inch of the screen.
It’s hard to find a beef with “Roma”. It’s such a stunning and intimate work from a filmmaker invested in every facet of the production (Cuarón served as director, writer, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer). A couple of scenes did clash for me and felt yanked from another film (the man in a ghillie suit singing in front of a forest fire and a character practicing martial arts with a shower curtain rod while fully nude instantly come to mind). I searched but still haven’t found satisfying answers to those creative flairs.
Mild quibbles aside, you can’t watch “Roma” without seeing the heart of the man behind it. A big deal has been made about Netflix distributing it through their streaming service and limiting its theater run. I would much rather see “Roma” on the big screen, but as with so many films of this type, smaller markets are often left out in the cold. Netflix offers a chance for anyone to see it, and I see that as a good thing.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS