A stunning achievement of art and emotion wrapped up in a deceptively simple story of a family on the rocks, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is the definition of a masterpiece. Technically immersive and narratively enthralling, Roma takes the everyday and mundane and finds ways to make them epic, sweeping, and breathtaking without ever resorting to melodrama, cheap manipulation, or pandering. Family dramas are nothing new, but there has never been one like Roma; a towering achievement for Cuarón, a filmmaker who only gets better with every passing effort. Considering that Cuarón has already made movies as wonderful and varied as A Little Princess, Children of Men, Gravity, and Y Tu Mamá También, that only makes Roma all the more impressive.
Shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white, Roma follows the life of an upper middle class family in Mexico City across a single year, from the middle of 1970 and into 1971. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), a mother to four young children (Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa), is about to spend a great deal of the year alone, with her husband (Fernando Grediaga) “travelling to Quebec” for an extended period of time. But instead of telling their story from the perspective of the mother or any of the children, Roma is seen largely through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family’s live-in housekeepers. When Cleo discovers that she’s pregnant with the child of her absentee, martial arts practicing boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), she fears for the safety of her job. Instead of being met with coldness by her clearly stressed out employer, Cleo is welcomed into the family even further by Sofía.
Outside of tracking Cleo’s pregnancy and Sofía’s increasingly depressed state of mind, there’s no real plot to speak of throughout Roma. The plot is life itself, and that’s all it needs. Favouring a storytelling approach that’s most often referred to when talking about documentaries, Cuarón embeds the viewer with the family and fills in the details as he goes along. Writing, directing, shooting, and co-editing the film himself, Cuarón creates a singular narrative idea for Roma and never skews the story outside the realm of reality. Some of his images might take on surreal, almost painterly qualities (like a bunch of drunken New Year’s revellers attempting to put out a raging forest fire or a shocking moment of violence that’s tragic precisely because we don’t want to believe it could be real), but every moment in the life of this family is treated with respect, dignity, and overwhelming empathy. Many auteurs get caught up in the rigorous nature of their visual and narrative constructs, but Cuarón never loses sight of what’s most important about the film: the people within it.
This could be because Roma uses bits and pieces of Cuarón’s own upbringing in its story, but it showcases the filmmaker’s uncanny ability to place himself firmly in the shoes of every character throughout the film. Some people are more likable than others (and a small handful are downright detestable once you get to know them), but Cuarón makes certain that the viewer will always be able to figure out where they’re coming from and why they act certain ways. The children might be the least developed characters, but that’s by design. Roma is the tale of a family coming apart at the seams told by fully developed human beings who’re having their beliefs about the world and the people around them constantly challenged and redefined.
For a film about a well-to-do family told largely from the perspective of a servant, Roma is less interested with class distinctions and more interested in human similarities. When Sofía makes it known that she plans to stick by Cleo in her time of need, the film places the two characters on even footing. Their problems are beginning to overlap thanks to the absentee men in their lives, and Cuarón is more energized when it comes to talking about motherly love and devotion. The conflicts in Roma are more of the male versus female variety, and less about the fact that Sofía’s husband is a doctor with a nice car and Cleo is an unwed mother-to-be from an indigenous background. Cuarón begs the viewer to note their emotional and instinctual similarities, not their obvious differences. Even as actors, veteran Tavira and exceptionally cast newcomer Aparicio are placed on equal footing, giving Cuarón’s story a strong, larger than normal moral centre through two of the year’s finest performances.
That equal footing between classes speaks to the historical and political depth of Roma, which takes place during a time of protests and an encroaching fear of Communism on the rise. For the most part, life in Cuarón’s Mexico City is relatively subdued and normal, but at any moment fears can spike thanks to riots, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. Sofía and Cleo have enough problems of their own to deal with – as does Sofía’s mother (Verónica García, in another brilliant turn from a first-timer), who comes in to help the family – but their stresses are compounded by living in a literally and metaphorically fracturing world. External stressors, both natural and manmade, are constantly exerting their forces on an already heavily taxed family unit. While most family dramas are content to examine internal strife and leave it at that, Roma always finds realistic ways to remind viewers that families are products of their environments, for better and for worse.
Much has been made about the fact that Roma is being distributed by streaming giant Netflix, and that the company has somewhat changed their stance on the theatrical releases of its films specifically because of this movie. It should be noted that Roma is the type of cinematic experience that demands to be seen in a movie theatre, and that, at the same time, I doubt anyone other than Netflix would’ve been willing to take a chance on such an intricate, uncompromised, and emotionally ambitious project. While not everyone will have the benefit of seeing the film in its intended big screen format, Roma is so exceptional that it deserves to reach the widest audience possible. If there’s a theatre near you showing Roma, you should unquestionably see it there. If there isn’t, you owe it to yourself to see it anyway.
Granted, watching it at home won’t necessarily give viewers the full experience of Cuarón’s work, which is so visually detailed, sonically rich, and cinematically streamlined that it’s almost like watching virtual reality without a headset. Cuarón’s camera floats steadily throughout Sofía’s household, the streets of Mexico City, and idyllic looking rural and coastal locales, giving the viewers a thorough lay of the land without ever pressing pause on the character’s lives. The viewer essentially becomes a ghost in Cuarón’s world; like they’re been turned invisible and sent back to the early 70s in a time machine. The sound design – the year’s best by far – matches the constantly roving camerawork to become just as immersive. If a scene in Roma is taking place inside a movie theatre and you think you hear someone talking behind you, that’s the actual movie and not a fellow theatregoer prattling on and ruining your enjoyment (probably). Technically speaking, Roma is every bit as dazzling as Children of Men or Gravity (both of which get nifty visual references here), but such a skill set here in service of Cuarón’s most grounded narrative in years.
Roma is an unequivocally perfect film by every possible metric. The visuals, story beats, performances, metaphors, production design, and post production work are all exemplary, and none of it feels hollow and showy by the time Roma has concluded. Viewers will be transported in their minds and emotionally satisfied in ways that few movies could ever hope to achieve. Roma isn’t merely a great film from a masterful auteur. It’s a life experience unlike any other.
Roma opens exclusively at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It will screen from Thursday, November 29, 2018 to December 2 in 4K projection with Dolby Atmos sound. It’s regular theatrical run at TIFF Bell Lightbox starts on December 6 (once again in 4K Dolby Atmos). Starting on December 14, Lightbox will also have begin having special screenings of Roma on 70mm. Roma will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, December 14.
Check out the trailer for Roma: