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Josh Reviews Roma

January 7th, 2019

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Roma, released on Netflix, follows approximately a year in the life of a young woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who serves as a maid for a family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970’s.  The film is based on Mr. Cuarón’s memories of his childhood and the woman who helped raise him (along with his biological mother).  Mr. Cuarón has said that the film “is autobiographical, in the sense that 90% of the scenes come out of my memory.”

Roma is a lush, beautiful film, gorgeously shot, and deeply moving.  Mr. Cuarón has crafted a beautiful peek into the life of this woman, Cleo, who is a slightly fictionalized version of the woman who clearly meant so much to him as a child.  Ms. Aparicio, who plays Cleo, has shockingly never acted before.  This is astonishing, because her performance is incredible.  She’s heartfelt, warm, and impressively naturalistic.  Cleo doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, and therefore so much of the story has to play out across her face, and in her eyes.  This would defeat many talented actors.  But Ms. Aparicio is incredibly effective at bringing us into Cleo’s inner life and heart.  It’s an astonishing performance, and one that I give both Ms. Aparicio and Mr. Cuarón tremendous credit for creating together.

I love that this film is a salute to this type of woman who was so important to so many families’ lives, and yet is so easily overlooked.  (I love the scene in which we see Cleo doing the family’s laundry up on the roof, and then the camera tilts upwards and we see so many other woman just like her, doing similar work atop all the other buildings of the neighborhood.)  There are many unsettling moments in the film in which we see Cleo looked down upon or talked down to.  And yet, every frame of the film makes clear that she is an integral part of this family that she lives with and works for.  Of the woman who inspired Cleo, Mr. Cuarón has said that “we end up becoming part of her family, or she becoming part of our family.”  That’s a beautiful sentiment, and by the time we arrive at the ending, the film has driven that point home with power and beauty.

Mr. Cuarón has proven himself capable of crafting extraordinarily large-scale fantasy-spectacle films.  Many consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which Mr. Cuarón directed, to be one of the strongest of the Potter films.  (I like it a lot, though personally I think that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the films.)  Of Mr. Cuarón’s work, I most love his films Children of Men and Gravity.  While I love seeing Mr. Cuarón work on such large-scale projects, he had long ago proven himself equally skilled at small-scale character-studies, such as in his 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También.  It’s delightful to see Mr. Cuarón once again telling a small-scale, intimate story.

But, wow, as effective as Mr. Cuarón is at the tender character moments, he is still a master at staging a spectacular sequence.  Roma is filled with incredible set-pieces, from the family celebration that turns into a fight against a wildfire, to Cleo and Teresa’s shopping trip for a crib that turns terrifying when they are caught up in violence between the police and protesters.  I have also found myself continually thinking about the horrific sequence of Cleo’s stillbirth.  Mr. Cuarón shoots that sequence with an unflinching eye, even as I the audience member found myself begging him, internally, to allow us look away.  It’s wrenching and heartbreaking and probably the moment at which the film reaches its pinnacle of emotional power.  I also sort of love the hypnotic power of the film’s opening credits sequence, a long close-up on water being washed again and again into a drain, gradually revealed to be Cleo’s handiwork washing the car-park area adjacent to the family’s home.

(Side note: I am intrigued by the film’s repetition of imagery of water — most notably in that opening sequence as well as the climactic sequence at the beach at the end of the film — and also of airplanes in the sky.)

The film is shot in beautiful black and white.  This allows the film an almost ethereal feeling of captured memory, while also enhancing our focus on the film’s beautiful imagery.  (Mr. Cuarón served as his own cinematographer for the film, and the result is dazzling.)

(Side note #2: I loved the moment in which we see a few shots, on TV, of the 1969 sci-fi movie Marooned, which reminded me more than a little of Mr. Cuarón’s own film, Gravity!)

Roma got a small theatrical release, but mostly is available to be seen in people’s homes via Netflix.  (Click here for an in-depth look at Netflix’s release of Roma.)  I don’t know what Netflix’s attempt to get into the film business in such a big way will mean for the industry when all is said and done.  Do I wish that these Netflix films such as Roma (as well as Andy Serkis’ Mowgli, and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I will be reviewing soon) were getting a wider theatrical release?  Of course I do.  On the other hand, other studios were not willing to make and/or release these films!!  And so I am thankful that Netflix has been willing to give the money to these filmmakers to be able to make their films, so that they now exist in the world.  And is it a problem for me to be able to enjoy these films in my own home, sitting comfortably on my couch and watching them on my big TV?  No sir/ma’am, it is not.

Roma is a delight, intimate and heartfelt.  It’s another triumph from master filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón.  I highly recommend it.

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