Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is one of the best visionary filmmakers out there. After taking us through a future dystopia in “Children of Men” and taking us to the far reaches of outer space in “Gravity”, which he took home best director at the Oscars. The director now brings his big screen visionary style to the small screen in a Netflix original film that proves Cuaron can do huge scale with something so small. He takes us through his most personal journey in “Roma”, which he created as a love letter, thank you and salute to the women who helped raise him. “Roma” explores the relationships that develop between employer, household servant and a family as a whole.
Let’s get it out the way and I’ll declare that “Roma” is a masterpiece. Cuaron’s film is one that will stand the test of time, will and should be regarded as a classic. “Roma” is a throwback to the auteur works of Federico Fellini and like the world of Fellini, will be taught in film schools for generations.
Set in the early 1970s, Cuaron centres his film around the family maid, an indigenous Native Mexican named Cleo played by the captivating Yalitza Aparico in her breakout acting debut, shes beloved by the children of the house, the children’s mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), in the mean time is distracted by her crumbling marriage. Over the course of the 2 hour 15 minute running time we get to know these two women, with housekeeper Cleo falling for a local martial artist who is a complete a-hole to her causing her to lean on Sofia, who rises to the occasion to be her emotional support. We are invited to spend some time with this family amid the chaos of their lives, which coincide with a dangerous time in their country, with the Corpus Cristi Massacre being a big set piece later in the film. Sophia and the kids often refers to Cleo as “a member of the family,” and they truly love and care for her. The film lets us see the ways that this is actually true, as they take care of her during a tragic time in her life and in ways that it is not, where she and another maid share a tiny room up a tall staircase, above their carport.
Yalitza Aparico plays Cleo as a vibrant, believable lead character, carrying much of the film on her shoulders as we invest in her life. This is Aparicio’s show as she communicates both in Spanish and an indigenous dialect known as Mixteca, but she’s got the expressive talents of an actress who has been in the business a long time.
And while “Roma” refers to the neighborhood in Mexico City where the film is set, it could certainly serve as a shout-out to Fellini, whose film of the same name from 1972 is also an autobiography of Fellini’s life just as Cuaron’s film is. It’s a visual feast, with the 65MM, letterbox presentation in black and white photography sparkling in crystal clear 4K, which is how it was optimized for when it gets streamed on Netflix on December 14th. This is where it befalls to tragedy as that it’s for Netflix’s streaming service, many people wont be as lucky as I was to get to see it theatrically (which I thank Barry Wurst movie critic of Maui Time newspaper and the great folks at Netflix for the special screening). If ever a film cried out for a theatrical viewing, this would be the one. Not to mention the sound design which is at the top of it’s class amazing, another reason to watch this in theaters.
Cuaron has many accomplishments as a filmmaker and “Roma” showcases his best ability as a filmmaker, to weave his cinephilia into the story in a way that’s organic and never self conscious. “Roma” offers plenty of Cuaron flourishes from a violent street protest that bursts into a placid furniture store to long tracking shots of busy, period era accurate Mexico City streets. Cuaron’s camera work like his visuals is a piece of art, his smooth camera work and wide lens shots are masterful and beautifully crafted. His use of wide angles and long takes can give an impression he’s taking things too slowly, this will be a turn off for most, but in all honesty it’s not that slow. As we see his long smooth camera pans, we wonder do we need to track Cleo as she moves from room to room turning off houselights? Well no, but who cares? A master filmmaker is at work here and it all looks so beautiful and Cuaron fills up the screen with so much beauty. I hope the Oscars is willing to put “Roma” into the best foreign film of the year category and give it the win it deserves.
He has created a heartfelt masterpiece of mood, nostalgia, and one that reminds us his gifts as a storyteller and an interpreter of the human experience. Cuaron paints something so deeply personal, so painstakingly detailed, and specifically focused. Cuaron, doesn’t just drop a simple “Thank You” at the end of the movie. The way he pays real tribute is to make an entire movie of the strengths, joys, and pains of the woman that was so integral to his childhood. It feels more than just personal. There is hundreds of movies that are personal and not even a fraction of them don’t come close to the feeling we get from “Roma”, here we are literally walking through Cuaron’s fondest memories, his visual photo album. It’s uniquely his and we should be so lucky and blessed to have this honor of him willing to share it with us. Absolutely top 5 films of the year honors.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5) / ★★★★★ (5) Netflix