Synopsis – A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family’s maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
My Take – By now anyone who is into world cinema may have heard about a particular Spanish language film that has been gaining fame all over the circuit mainly due to its wide critical acclaim, and for being a rare Netflix original that has been given a theatrical (limited) release, especially considering how stubbornly they follow their restrictions of not being more than a home streaming giant. I am guessing this special case was made due to the name attached to the project – Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who not only just directed but also produced, filmed, and edited this drama.
Along with fellow Mexicans, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, director Cuarón is considered as one of few directors to break out in the early 2000s, starting with Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and transitioned quite comfortably into high budget English films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013).
But I think it’s suffice to say, that his latest in no ways resembles his previous work, especially the 2013 sci-fi thriller that earned him seven Academy Awards, including a best director trophy. Instead this is a more riskier and personal project.
As a testament to the artist’s vision and talent, this semi-autobiographical film made in black and white and spoken in Spanish and Mixtec, is more of tribute to the women who raised him and makes a comment on turbulent times of the 70s. By modeling the main character on a woman who worked for his family and raised him, director Cuarón brings the love for her to the big screen.
I will be honest here, considering the initial trailers or whatever form of minuscule marketing came from Netflix, the film didn’t interest me one bit, and suffice to say if it had not been for the glowing reviews I would have probably never seen this film, now that I have, I am still marveling over how visually rich, heartbreaking and compelling the film was. Objectively this is easily in the top 5 films of 2018 and it is something that should have released widely big screen to appreciate all of director Cuaron‘s love and respect.
Set in 1970, in the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma, the story follows Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic help who works for a well-off doctor, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his family consisting of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her mother Teresa (Verónica García), and their four pre-teen children. Living in a room above the garage with Adela (Nancy García García), the family’s other domestic employee, Cleo’s life is quite busy, as other than literally mothering the children more than her biological matriarch, she is also dealing with removing the copious deposits left by Borras, the family’s pampered pet pooch.
Somehow, she also finds time to date Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who seems to more into martial arts than her. As Antonio begins to leave for a business trip, considering his behavior Sofia begins to worry about whether he even intends to return. Divided by class, the two women are linked by misfortune, and very soon discover that they cannot depend on the men in their lives and will have to rely on each other and forge some new sort of semblance of family, together.
What we end up with is a film, shot beautifully on 65mm black-and-white film that feels as much like a living photo album from director Cuarón’s youth as it does a love letter to the strong women in his life. The plot itself is largely episodic, favoring plenty of small, compelling moments. The film just loves filling the screen with interesting events, both tying into the two main background subplots and completely unrelated that make the world feel so much larger than the personal story.
There is a lot more to this lovely, relatively low-stakes found family drama, however, both on the fringes of the action onscreen and in between what’s actually said aloud by the characters. Every frame, every moment is loaded with hints and meaning extending well beyond what’s clearly evident at first.
On a technical level, this film is as great as a film can get. In terms of cinematography, directing, editing, sound and art design, setting, color grading and especially performances this is beyond perfection. Director Cuaron uses extremely long takes to evoke certain emotions and put you into 1970 Mexico. Unlike everything else the characters feel so real, so down to earth and so drowned by the world.
Slowly, subtly, the visuals and the subtext of the film start to piece together, growing denser and more intriguing by the scene. Then the events of the horrifying Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, when Mexican army soldiers fired on student protesters, killing 120 people, erupt in the background, in heart-stopping and haunting detail, forcing everything to the surface and propelling all of the film’s carefully nurtured developments into an explosive and absolutely devastating final act.
It’s a lot to take in and does, arguably, veer close to histrionic melodrama, especially compared to how understated the work is in its earlier scenes, but there’s not a single moment of it that hasn’t been earned in every rich shot and character moment along the way. The long-takes were also extremely well done. Every bit of the house and the world around it is rendered in exquisite detail, and quietly; there’s no soundtrack to the film, but the impeccable sound design puts you right into every scene.
Often, director Cuarón positions the camera in the center of a room and lets it rotate slowly, tracking with Cleo as she moves about the house, which is bursting with books and art and furniture and decorations that sketch out the life of the family. The one on the beach is unforgettable. Even the long take during the opening credits is spectacular. With both great affection and great clarity, director Cuarón has transformed the influences of his own childhood into a nuanced and reflective chronicle that manages to touch on political upheaval, class inequality, gender inequality, life, and death while still remaining firmly grounded in the intensely personal bond between its main characters in their day-to-day existence.
The film is not, strictly speaking, Cleo’s world, the divide between her roots in a poor village miles away and the family’s comfortable life are always starkly present. Even the way the characters talk underlines this fact; with the family, Cleo and Adela speak Spanish, but between themselves, they speak an indigenous dialect of Mixteca, from their home village.
Another thing that really caught my attention were the background characters because every single individual person in the background had their own story. A scene in a theater was done so well, that you could look at any person or couple in the audience, and they would all be doing something so unique and different. It felt like I was watching real people, and it was amazing.
The film is also at times quite funny, always in a way that builds out its world more richly (a recurring gag with a car that’s barely able to get into the driveway turns into something more substantial later in the film). Perhaps one of the film’s strongest thematic undercurrents is the perseverance of women within the societal stronghold of men. There’s an understated bond and empathy between Sofia and Cleo, both lonely but in different ways.
The film is about both women, although director Cuarón is much more concerned with Cleo. Sofia’s marriage is souring, while Cleo is on a sour romantic path herself, but Cleo has something to look forward to despite the sorrow of separation from her lover, mother and the village which she has left behind. With its unapologetic display of evil deeds at the expense of women going criminally unnoticed every day, the film is, in a way, a love letter to say that director Cuarón did not forget the multifaceted strength of the women in his life, who amid men who are often so carried away by passion or ego that they are essentially useless, or worse. A hospital scene in which Cleo faces the darkest moment of her life is one of the saddest cinematic moments ever.
As for complaints, the film does go a little style over substance in some cases. As the story is simplistic, and well-done it does make us care a lot, but the long takes do become a little over-indulgent.
Nevertheless the performances are brilliant. Yalitza Aparicio had never acted before this film, but she had worked as a domestic employee, as had her mother and other female relatives. That personal history is something she’s talked about in interviews, explaining that she drew on her lived experience when portraying Cleo’s life. In supporting roles, Marina De Tavira, Nancy García García, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Verónica García, Fernando Grediaga and José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza play their parts well.
The young actors Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, and Carlos Peralta are also effective. On the whole, ‘Roma’ is a delightful and gut-wrenching semi-autobiographical film that is both visually and emotionally arresting, grandiose and intensely intimate all at once. This film is without a doubt Netflix’s best film production so far.
Directed – Alfonso Cuarón
Rated – R
Run Time – 135 minutes