Roma (2018)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/07/18 06:19:46

"Maybe Cuaron's best, smart and heartfelt and beautiful all at once."
5 stars (Awesome)

There are those that believe that subtlety is the mark of truly great art, and manipulation is its enemy, but it seems unlikely that Alfonso Cuarón is among them, and not just because he has done as much popular, commercial work as art-house material. "Roma" falls into the latter category, and viewers can spend a lot of time teasing out how it works and what its symbols mean, but even without putting that sort of academic effort in, they'll feel what Cuarón is saying and be pulled along. It's superficially a piece of film-snob material that anybody can enjoy.

It takes place in Mexico City of the early 1970s; Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy García García) are two Mixteco servants to a comfortable family, with Cleo a particular favorite of the children. The father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a doctor of some renown, briefly at home before leaving for a conference in Montreal - one which gets extended until it becomes clear he's not coming back. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) sinks into understandable despair, putting extra weight on Cleo, who is now expecting her own child with a father (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) more interested in revolution than domesticity.

It's a crying shame that this is a Netflix film and very few people will get to see its stunning black-and-white photography on the big screen; it's striking and uses its widescreen composition impeccably. Cleo and the rest do not often stray far from the city, but when they do, Cuarón gets the sort of picture that seems to sink deep into the screen, a world that swallows their personal concerns. At home and in the city, Cuarón doesn't quite shoot the film like a soap opera or a stage play, but one gets the feeling that wherever possible, every room and outdoor space has been carefully built or scouted to match the widescreen frame, a tight box than both limits and comforts Cleo and Sofia and a space that, while nevertheless cinematic, puts the audience in a space to accept melodrama.

Cuarón is credited as writer, director, cinematographer, producer, and editor, and knowing how he will build his movie from start to finish gives him a great deal of room to communicate visually. For example, he spends much of the movie following characters and action in slow pans from right to left, making that motion seem almost like standing still, and it lets him make moving the other direction in a climactic scene feel like even more of a struggle but not so fast or jumpy as to be hard to follow. He's not always doing much to hide his technique, though; the opening scene literally reflects the close, looking up instead of looking down, and the seemingly minor act of parking a car becomes half the story in miniature - a metaphor played with a twinkle if not quite a wink.

Its period of 1970-71 covers some personally and nationally tumultuous events, and can sometimes feel a little too dialed-in at times, but those moments are rare, and Cuarón does well in having them intersect, perhaps better for a Mexican audience than an American one. The film is a bit conservative in some ways, tending to find the upside in the status quo and seeing the rebels as disruptive and destructive; how Cleo being rushed to the hospital during a riot turns out is a bit on-the-nose. Cuarón grounds his film in a time and place and keeps Cleo at the center of her own drama but the periphery of her employers' to the country's; they're all related and important but never the wrong scale.

Most importantly, Yalitza Aparicio is fantastic as Cleo. Cuaron has her feel like someone who necessarily fades into the background at times but also emerge in the center as if ignoring her should have been impossible, and Aparicio manages to give Cleo kindness and warmth that never feels out of place while also not letting the audience lose track of her own troubles. She's especially impressive toward the end, uncertain of her place and what she wants that to be. It makes for an interesting pairing with Marina de Tavira, whose Sofia spends much of the film as passive and despairing, yet manages to sidestep privilege and condescension as her character works her way out of it. They create an interesting bond for these women, probably not so deep as to completely transcend their class differences, but real enough.

Cuarón is greatly influenced by the Italian neo-realists, but has arguably made a more engaging, entertaining movie than his predecessors - intricate and artful, but never detached or seemingly designed for dissection. "Roma" is one of the year's best and most beautiful films, good enough to hopefully have the same sort of long-term presence in repertory series and film courses that its inspirations have, no matter who owns it.

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