NYFF ’18 Review: Even When Personal to a Fault, ‘Roma’ is Cuarón’s Masterpiece—and the Best Movie of the Year

If you notice one thing about Roma, it will likely be its size. It’s a big, big, big movie, with landscapes that extend out into infinity, scenes that seem to last forever, and emotions so wide and deep they could swallow you whole like a well. It makes sweeping political commentary, shows births and deaths and poverty and heartbreak, focuses on the vastness of the ocean and the sky. Its camera likes to slowly sweep left and right, constantly looking outward and upward.

Through all this big-screen grandeur, it would be so easy for Roma to drown itself in itself—and in less skilled hands, it may have done just that. But with Alfonso Cuarón at the helm, creating the most personal work of his entire career, Roma is as sharply focused and intimate as it is grand, and it never for an instant loses sight of the woman at its center.

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Yalitza Aparicio in ‘Roma’ © Netflix

That woman is Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a young, indigenous Mexican maid to an upper-middle-class family living in Mexico City in 1970, a time of state-sponsored violence against political dissidents. Cleo is thoughtful and deliberate, always tending to the needs of her employers, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four children. But she is also keenly aware of her own needs and limitations, even as the line between work and life becomes more and more blurred.

Language creates an almost helpful boundary—Cleo speaks Spanish in Sofia’s home, but slips back into her native Mixtec with her friends and fellow maid Adela (Nancy García) in their little apartment above the garage. She and Adela find joy in each other’s company and do all the sorts of things young women do together—race through the city streets to get lunch, go to movies with their boyfriends, and exercise and gossip by candlelight every night so as not to waste electricity and disturb Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Verónica García). Even when surrounded by sequences of high drama, these small scenes of tender normalcy are some of the film’s most mesmerizing.

When Antonio leaves Sofia and her children behind for a mistress, and when Cleo’s own fearful, radicalized boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) disappears from her life, it becomes perfectly clear that the world of Roma is shaped and defined by its women. These women are real people, with motivations and desires and fears, and the men that hurt them and leave them are the flattened puppets with nothing to say.

While it would have been easy for this story to champion all women as equal partners in a fight for survival, Cuarón is careful not to obfuscate class struggle on the basis of gender. Sofia may be indebted to and even love Cleo, but their relationship is still that of an employer and her employee, and Sofia is quick to anger and place blame on Cleo’s back when things have gone awry. That’s not to say the film villainizes Sofia—it just deftly explores the complexities of gender, race, power, class, and family that affect each of these women individually. It also must be noted that Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted prior to Roma and partly inspired the character of Cleo, more than holds her own against veteran actors like Sofia’s Marina de Tavira, commanding attention with a quiet force.

For better or for worse, it’s impossible to talk about this narrative without looking to Cuarón as a character in it all. Roma is his film, through and through—he wrote, directed, produced, and for the first time in his feature-length career, shot the movie himself. Because of this, and because it’s his return to Spanish-language film after almost 17 years working in English, Roma feels fantastically honest and true to Cuarón in a way we’ve never seen before. Yet, the vibrantly personal nature of the film is complicated by the same thing that allows it to flourish—the semi-autobiographical nature of its script.

Cuarón himself grew up in a middle class, Mexico City household in the 1970s under Luis Echeverría Álvarez. He had an intellectual father who left him with his mother and two brothers. And he had a maid whom he loved. While the proximity of Cuarón’s memories to the events of the film clearly allows for an unprecedented level of nuance and emotional realism, it’s difficult to not read the dynamic of a grown-up little boy telling a story about his maid as potentially patronizing. This may be Cleo’s story, but it’s being shaped through the lens of a child in her care. It’s a delicate complexity that’s difficult to make sense of after only one viewing, but it’s an important cliff note that I hope people continue to acknowledge and wrestle with as they watch the film.

Beyond the immediate, personal influences on Roma’s story is an impossibly long list of influences on its style, structure, and audiovisual makeup. There are nods to the social realism of Fellini, the long takes of Tarkovsky, the fascination with memory in Proust, and the Westerns by Sturges (the children go to see Marooned in a nod to the film’s influence on Gravity). There is noise and light and pure information populating every scene. It’s shot in 65 mm black-and-white, which will be unfortunately wasted on its Netflix distribution. The film’s climax is a breathtaking, tear-jerking masterclass in composition. And the sound design is particularly noteworthy—it transforms dogs barking in the distance and water splashing along concrete into a symphony of life. For these reasons, the craft of Roma is a revelation, one that rewards your attention and demands to be rewatched (on the big screen, if possible) and reconsidered time and time again.

By almost any standard, the film is a triumph and a “love letter”—to Cleo, to Mexico, to women, to life. And while it’s a beautiful, delicate letter indeed—and by far the best film I’ve seen the year—we have to remember that the subject of love letters are not their authors, and it’s worth considering the author’s position when evaluating its contents. For now, I’m eagerly awaiting the day I get to sit back down with this movie and live in it’s big, big world once more.

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