With Roma, Cuarón brings a neorealist eye to Mexico
Every five years or so, we are visited by Alfonso Cuarón–patron saint of great movies–and he delivers once again with Roma. This time, Mexico native Cuarón brings us his first Spanish language film since 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien, returning to his homeland to tell the story of a year in the life of a middle class family in early 1970's Mexico City. Shot in black and white, and without usual DP Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is as much a return to form as it is a step in a new direction for Cuarón. Debuting on Netflix this December, this is a magnum opus for the silver screen that most people will see on their iPads. Yet if Netflix is the future of auteur film, at least Roma brings to it a cinematic language that harkens back to the post-war days of Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Vittorio De Sica.
Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is the mother of four, living with her mother (Veronica Garcia) and two live in maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia). The father, Antonio, makes a brief appearance early on in the film, before heading off on a work trip to “Canada.” The truth is that this film belongs to Cleo- it is more or less her story entirely. Cleo is an indigenous woman from the south of Mexico, near Oaxaca, a migrant who has come to Mexico City to find a paying job. She finds it doing work for a wealthier family. She cleans, hangs clothing, and takes care of the children- as much a source of love and reassurance as Sofia is for them, sometimes more.
In a subtle yet important move, Cuarón has made the subtitles for the indigenous language slightly different than the subtitles for regular spanish- reminding the viewer that Mexican society is not some singular entity. It is important, because Cleo's story is one that is almost never told on the big screen- and newcomer Yalitza Aparicio does a phenomenal job of bringing her to life, in a performance that will hopefully earn her an Oscar nomination. The majority of the film is an empathetic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of Cleo and the family she takes care of- impeccably illustrating the class structure of Mexico in the process, and the often tragic ways that the country's political machine impacts its citizens. All brought to life with Cuaron's bravura, unstoppable technical craft. Every frame is a painting with moving parts, with people and objects moving in and out of the frame, making all kinds of noise- the film is absolutely teeming with the life of central Mexico. Whether it's a man pushing a flaming barrel smoker down the street, a marching band waltzing around, or a drop dead gorgeous shot inside a classic movie theatre, there is almost always candy for the eye. And if you look too hard you might get dizzy, as Cuarón simply fills the frame with as much detail as possible and turns the camera around in circles to try and capture it all.
Roma is supposedly a partially autobiographical film for Cuarón, and as such, it feels achingly personal. I imagine that Cleo was based off of someone he knew, perhaps his own live in maid who helped to raise him and provide him with love and reassurance. Here he looks back at all she went through in an important year in her life, and his life- and perhaps he didn't understand until he was much older just how important she was to him, and just how important her story is to be told.
Roma is one of the best films of the year. If you have a chance to see it on a big screen, I highly suggest you do so.