It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes as a film critic—or simply as an audience member—you exit a film so extraordinary and emotionally stirring that words nearly fail you. Writer/director/cinematographer/co-editor Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal work Roma is just such an experience, in large part because it’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You almost feel as if it’s something you’ve been waiting to see your whole life but didn’t realize it until you actually did.
Mexico’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film consideration at the next Academy Awards, this stunning black-and-white movie is more a series of remembrances than simply a linear story, although it’s certainly easy enough to follow, even when the focus of each scene isn’t always where many other filmmakers might have placed it. That’s in large part due to the perspective from which the story is told. Roma tells the story of the women in Cuarón’s life who raised him, therefore shaping his earliest memories. There’s a sequence that is set in the midst of a brilliantly staged and utterly terrifying re-creation of the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre of student demonstrators by the government-sanctioned Mexican military. The chaos is more a backdrop to something else happening to the family at the center of the story, and that’s likely because, as a youth, Cuarón would have been much more focused on the concerns of those he loved rather than the screaming strangers around him.
The film centers on a domestic worker named Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, speaking in her native Mixtec, as the real-life Cleo did), who helped keep the house clean and the family’s four kids in line in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Initially the children’s parents, including mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), are around, but before long the father (Fernando Grediaga) says he’s heading out for a work trip and simply never returns, leaving the middle-class family in dire straits. There’s a wonderful metaphor of the father squeezing his oversized car into the garage that is a fairly clear sign that he has bigger aspirations than this family can provide him.
At the same time this is going on, Cleo goes on a date with the seemingly nice, romantic Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). They sleep together, she gets pregnant, and he avoids her with such conviction that she is forced to track him down to tell him he’s going to be a father. To say he greets the news badly is putting it mildly, and it becomes clear to both the adult women in the family household that they have been abandoned by the men in their lives.
I don’t mean to imply that Roma is told from a child’s perspective, but more from one’s memories. I think it’s fair to say that these remembrances are selective and perhaps even somewhat unreliable, but always in favor of Cleo and Sofia being the backbones of the family and heroines to these mostly unruly kids. The emotional apex of the movie involves Cleo rescuing two of the children from drowning in the ocean surf, after they were explicitly told by their mother not to go in the water. The moment seems so real (I believe it’s shot in an unbroken, single take) that you find yourself gasping for breath along with everyone in the sequence, which is made all the more tense knowing that Cleo (and the actress playing her) can’t swim.
Cuarón (who also directed Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mamá También, among many others) is a master at emphasizing moments without telling you exactly where to look or why an instant is significant. We figure it out and sense the weight of an action or visual reference from the context. There are also elements I still haven’t fully deciphered, including the recurring image of planes flying over at different key moments. Is that to indicate the family lived near an airport? Or is it a sign to someone in that family that there is a whole world out there to which they can escape and get out of the confines of this small neighborhood? Questions like this arise out of Roma, and they still haunt me, as do the note-perfect but very different performances from Aparicio and De Tavira, who served very different, but equally important, purposes in Cuarón’s life. The movie is an elegant and meditative series of remembrances that combine to make something fulfilling and soulful. Look for me to discuss this later this month when I reveal my favorite films of 2018.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and can also be streamed on Netflix.