Roma is a masterclass in filmmaking from Alfonso Cuarón, no surprise there, and when it is applied to this seemingly small “memory” of a film the results compound into an epic tale of Mexican history.
Cuarón conceived this film from his memories of childhood, giving the point of view over to that of the family maid, Cleo, who is observing this family’s struggles as she navigates her own. Cleo and another maid run the household for this family of seven, Sofia being the matron of the house, while her mother lives in with the four children, as well. The man of the house might be anything but, and while Sofia’s husband, Antonio, might not be the focus his story slowly swirls on the edges before finding itself right in the mess of the film’s major set piece.
The film’s whole construction is similar to Antonio’s story. What starts as a small scoped story taking place in the home of Cleo’s employer, slowly lets us out of that front gate to see more and more of not just Mexico City, but the country as a whole. Characters enter on the periphery and pop up again later, with the aforementioned set piece, centered around a fateful trip to a department store, bringing in many old faces from the story. Cuarón fills his frame (he wrote, directed, edited and shot this movie) and scenes with symbolism and foreshadowing and I can only imagine this film will benefit from rewatches when it hits Netflix in the next couple weeks. Cleo is always our center, but she is an excellent avatar for the viewers as we learn the nuances and dichotomy of the social and political struggles of Mexico. This is where the epic scale slowly folds into the film, and by the end we are seeing epic recreations of moments in history. The storytelling just culminates into something more than we are expecting, without ever losing that personal connection to Cleo and her journey.
Speaking of Cleo, Cuarón has tapped an unknown, Yalitza Aparicio, in the role of Cleo and she is nothing short of remarkable. Quiet and contemplative, she keeps her emotions close to her chest, but we always know what she is feeling. The anguish that she can cast without making any giant gestures helps the film feel authentic through and through, like we are eavesdropping on Cleo and her story. Aparicio comes across as natural, loving and determined, with a silent strength that can’t be ignored. Equally as good is Marina de Tavira as Sofia, who gets the showier part and makes the absolute most of it. She shows her big emotions realistically, projecting her love for her children in a way that Cleo can’t because she isn’t their mother. The way Tavira handles Sofia’s arc is also remarkable to observe, finding strength by the end when she thought there was none to be had along the way. Fernando Grediaga and Jorge Antonio Guerrero both do a fine job of poorly representing the crappy male figures in this family’s lives, with Guerrero getting a couple of key scenes to really show off his abilities.
Digging deep into Roma isn’t terribly fair to the film, the film is slightly episodic in nature, adding up to something more as mentioned above, and it is an experience that has to be taken in rather than be told. That is why the film is such a showcase of Cuarón’s abilities, you could write paragraph after paragraph breaking down each scene, even the sound design casts a spell as it swirls around you with the camera moves. Cuarón’s camera is less showy here, but just as trustworthy as it has been in his previous films. He wanted to keep things natural, and his long takes allow for that here, but he doesn’t let the camera dance around his sets like he has in the past; an appropriate choice for this picture. The black and white photography is also endlessly gorgeous, and the resolution of 65mm continues to impress every time a filmmaker busts it out. The level of detail in these frames is often endless.
Roma is not only a technical masterpiece, but quite the emotional endeavour as well. Aparicio’s Cleo is a character we aren’t soon to forget, and neither is Cuarón’s ability to wow is with his technical achievements. Everyone can watch this film on Netflix in a matter of days, but if you have the ability to see this on a big screen it is worth the trip. Roma is beautiful filmmaking and it deserves the biggest screen you can find to soak it all in, both emotionally and aesthetically.