Review: Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is sublime

ROMA (Alfonso Cuaron). 135 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Thursday (November 29) at TIFF Bell Lightbox. See listing. Rating: NNNNNThe opening sequence.

ROMA (Alfonso Cuaron). 135 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Thursday (November 29) at TIFF Bell Lightbox. See listing. Rating: NNNNN

The opening sequence of Alfonso Cuarons Roma is fixated on a close-up of sudsy water splashing across a marble-tiled driveway. For the first few minutes, just the soapy water fills the frame and the faint sounds of someone off-screen scrubbing the tiles. Eventually, we see where the driveway leads: an immaculate home in Mexico Citys wealthy Colonial Roma district.

Roma is filled with these kinds of detailed shots that linger on the seemingly mundane. When pieced together, they form an engrossing portrait of a young woman of Mixteco heritage living in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Partially inspired by Cuarons own upbringing, the film follows the relationship between Cleo (first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in nanny and maid and the upper-middle-class family she cares for. Cleo lives in a small apartment above the garage with her friend and the familys other live-in maid, Adela (Nancy Garcia, also in her first acting role). With Adela, we get to see Cleos life outside of work hours. Together, they gossip in Mixtec about crushes the films subtitles are in both Spanish and Mixtec and go on double dates.

Throughout the film, Cleo straddles the line between employee and family member, inching closer to the latter as the household unravels when the father deserts the family.

Yet as much as Cleo is a surrogate mother she wakes the children up in the morning, gets them dressed, makes breakfast and kisses them good night particular details accentuate the reality that she will always be a caregiver first. When she answers the phone, she always wipes the mouthpiece on her apron before handing it over to the mother, Sophia (Marina de Tavira). In another scene, she is watching TV with the family while sitting on a cushion on the floor. Shes instructed to fetch tea for the father and the child cuddling with Cleo protests.

While Cuarons last film, the Academy Award-winning Gravity, was a space epic, Roma feels just as dramatic as it unfolds. Throughout the course of a year, we see a family evolve and dismantle, the disparate lives of privileged and impoverished, and the sociopolitical effects of a changing country. These dynamics exist within the greater world of the film, but also within Cleo and Sophias relationship. At one point, Sofia announces to the kids they should visit Cleos village, not knowing that Cleos mothers home has already been seized by the government.

These political issues, like land disputes, class wars and soldiers shooting kids on the street, are always lingering in the background of Roma, but Cuaron always keeps his focus on Cleo. After all, shes the heart of Roma. (And in the end, Cuaron dedicates the film to the real-life Cleo who helped raised him, Libo.) Overall though, Roma is an homage to Mexican womanhood. Even as the men in Sophia and Cleos lives disappoint them, they both possess resilience and strength, and its clear Cuaron has an immense admiration for the women who raised him.

Shot in 65-mm black and white, Cuarons attention to detail is sublime: sweeping shots of the family home, the gritty streets of Mexico City crowded with food vendors, the chaos of a deadly student protest. Cuarons world looks so authentic, that it could be mistaken for archival footage. (During the Toronto International Film Festival, Cuaron said he asked the set designers and costumers to only show him mood boards in black and white so hed be able to see what itd look like in the film.)

Roma will be released on Netflix next month, but if you can, its worth seeing Cuarons masterpiece in a theatre rather than on a laptop screen.


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