‘Roma’: Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning love letter to the women who raised him

If there’s any movie that’s captivated the film community this year, for better or for worse, it is Roma, Academy-Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s dreamy black-and-white drama about the women who raised him in early 1970s Mexico. Since its premiere in Venice Film Festival last August (where it won the Golden Lion), the film has been named the year’s best in most media channels, picking up Best Picture awards from the BAFTAs, the Critic’s Choice Awards and the New York Film Critics Association, in addition to countless other awards and nominations, including 10 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Roma details the day-to-day life of a middle-class family — one based on the director’s own family — living in an affluent neighbourhood in Mexico called Roma and being cared for primarily by Cleo, a domestic worker, and the matriarch of the family (a fantastic Marina De Tavira, whose performance stealthily impresses). Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio plays the character, in what is her very first, now Oscar-nominated acting role. Modelled after Cuarón’s childhood caretaker Libo, Aparicio’s Cleo brings life to a character that is often forgotten, both in the household and in cinema. At once a strong and loving figure in the kids’ lives and an innocent girl, both a woman caring for children and a child looking for a mother’s guidance, Cleo embodies a clash of maturity and naivety so intricately woven with Roma’s narrative of a 1970s Mexico coming into itself.

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Courtesy of Carlos Somonte

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Cuarón is successful in achieving that narrative thanks to the stellar production design work put into Roma. For the film, Eugenio Caballero recreated multiple blocks to resemble the Mexico Cuarón grew up in, right down to the diner his caretaker used to eat at every Sunday. This becomes essential in elevating the film’s realist approach in creating a portal into Cuarón’s childhood memories. That being said, for a film as purportedly intimate as Roma is to its director, it’s interesting to study how impersonally shot Roma is.

As opposed to employing close-ups to zero in on the intricacies of the daily experiences of this family, Cuarón, who also served as cinematographer, resorts to using black and white panning shots, wide-angle shots and a 65mm lens to tell his story, creating an artistic, dream-like portrait of his city that never breaches a system of duality that binds (or unbinds) characters to their surrounding. Choosing to film Roma in this way allows the viewer to situate themselves in relation to the characters and the characters in relation to one another and the spaces they occupy, where the children are never separated from Cleo, the dog is never separated from the driveway, and so on.

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For a filmmaker of Cuarón’s stature, this comes as no surprise. The Mexican Best Director winner never fails to remain faithful to his own signature style of filmmaking, always crafting films that technically build on his previous efforts. In 2007’s Children of Men, for instance, we can see Cuarón experimenting with the long shot before putting it to full use with a 17-minute long shot that opens 2013’s Gravity. This is largely because Cuarón is a filmmaker who studies, understands, and challenges the relationship between a film’s narrative and its craftsmanship. We see this in the decisions he makes with Roma that make the film such a technical feat. Perhaps this is no more evident than in a jarringly moving birth sequence in the third arc of the film, where the external socio-political climate of Mexico intercepts Cleo’s narrative.

While a master of craftsmanship, Cuarón’s filmographies tend to be less affecting than they are visually striking. Though Roma is a definite improvement from Gravity in that regard (where the storyline was rather bland and unoriginal), it remains underwhelming in comparison to the film’s technical prowess. This is in part due to unnecessary subplots that slow down the pacing of the film in its second act (I could have done without that martial arts bit) and in part due to the extent to which stories such as this one can get personal — and therefore difficult to emotionally relay. Here and there, the film overestimates its viewer’s investment in its characters and their storylines and relies too heavily on the filmmaker’s attachment to his own story, at times begging the viewer to ask oneself: what is it that drives me to care about these people?

Perhaps if modern cinema better celebrated the ordinary, more layered stories of people like Cleo could find audiences. It’s interesting to note how strong the film’s reception has been in the west, where figures like Cleo aren’t as omnipresent as they are in this corner of the world (and certainly more cherished). Still, Roma succeeds, time and again, in affirming the caliber of its multi-talented helmer and cementing its place as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, one that is sure to be remembered years from now.

Rating: 82/100

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Vicken Margossian

Vicken Margossian is an aspiring film critic/scholar and filmmaker based in Beirut. He is the founder of Reel Rambler and hopes to expand the website into a company that generates critical and creative film content as well as films by Arab and Armenian filmmakers.

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