The following is a review of Roma — Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
There was something very nice and special about my experience of watching Alfonso Cuarón’s latest drama on Netflix, the sole distributor of this film. This is a streaming platform that hopes to be able to take this Mexican heartbreaker all the way to the Academy Awards. Netflix gets a lot of criticism from the film community and, for a lot of it, it is well-earned. Their logo is bright red-on-white, its logo’s sound effect is loud and intrusive, and once the film comes to an end you are yanked away by the service to watch the trailer for some other Netflix Original, thus rushing you out of the experience of sitting with a film, taking it in properly, during the final credits.
But Roma is special, and Netflix treats it as such. The Netflix logo at the beginning of Cuarón’s film is greyed out appropriately for this black-and-white film, the logo also does not make a sound, and when the film ends, you aren’t yanked out of the film. You are given the chance to relax with the score-less final credits.
In my experience, Netflix doesn’t rush you away from Roma. That is just one of the things that makes Roma a unique Netflix film. It also just happens to be nothing like the kind of product Netflix would normally champion. And, yes, Netflix is championing this film, which is clear from the way they proudly presented a still of the film during the user-selection screen for the Netflix application I was using.
“Wake up, my angel.”
In Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which takes place in Mexico in the early 1970s, we follow the daily routine of Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family maids in a household that consists of two parents, four children, and the grandmother of the four children. Among other things, Cleo cleans, cooks, and takes care of the children. You get the sense that Cleo is almost a member of the family and the way she addresses and wakes up the children suggests that she has a lot of love for the family that has hired her.
“No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”
When she is not working, Cleo and another maid go on double-dates to the movie theater with men that Cleo has been introduced to by her colleague. Cleo’s date is Fermín (played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a slender man with a curious passion for martial arts. While on a date with him, she informs him that she may be pregnant, and, as a result, Fermín leaves her in the middle of the date.
This sudden life-changing moment for Cleo is juxtaposed by a change for the household she works for, as the man of the house has left the family with no intention of returning to help his wife, Sofia (played by Marina de Tavira). Life puts a dent in both women’s status and sense of security, just as a historical tragedy, the recreation of which is astounding and terrifying, is about to hit their home country, and, in Roma, we find out whether they will get through it as complete as they were prior to it.
This is a deliberately paced, scoreless, black-and-white, and non-English film about a maid and her daily life in early 1970s Mexico. This is not the loud, colorful, in-your-face product that you may expect Netflix to acquire or seek out. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a thoughtful study of an overworked and underappreciated woman. Roma is dedicated to Cuarón’s real-life former nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, and you feel the love he has for the woman. When the film finally gets to the two astoundingly soul-crushing moments in the third act, it is the emotional attachment that you have to the character up to that point, and the extent to which you feel successfully transported to another time and world, that decides exactly how well the film will work for you.
And I did feel transported. From something as simple as the sound of 1970s Mexican city streets to the impressive recreation of the aforementioned historical tragedy, Cuarón presents us with an undeniably felt authenticity. Cuarón’s memory or understanding of 1970s Mexico is multi-faceted. He takes us from modern streets to undeveloped regions of his home country. Choosing to juxtapose the troubles of two women who were both crucial to his upbringing, his mother and his housemaid, but who come from completely different classes is wise of Cuarón. And he acknowledges its significance throughout his Mexican slice of life-epic.
For a deeply personal but socially conscious story like this one, Cuarón, who produced, directed, shot, co-edited, and wrote Roma, guides the camera with these slowly-gliding panning shots, which, to me, made you feel like a fly on the wall, or, to put it another way, it made the camera feel like a panning surveillance camera. These panning shots, along with these classic-Cuarón long tracking shots, only help to make Roma feel more natural and authentic than any other film I’ve seen this year, including Chloe Zhao’s portrait of a unique lifestyle in The Rider. This is also thanks, in part, to these unshowy acting performances by untrained actors, including Yalitza Aparicio whose smile can warm up the chilliest of hearts.
This is not a film for everyone, though, and, really, this is not a film for the average Netflix viewer. It requires patience, an interest in foreign cinema, an acceptance of Cuarón’s gorgeous black-and-white visuals, and, after all that, I still think there are a couple of things that may not work for audiences. You may find that the lack of close-ups and this less-than-direct protagonist makes the film less absorbing than you may have expected it to be. I think those are perfectly understandable gripes to have with the film. But that was not the experience I had watching the film.
After I saw this film for a second time, I tried to look back at 2018 to figure out which films moved me so deeply that they made me cry openly, and I wanted to find out which films moved me to the same extent on my second viewing of the film. The answer is that no 2018 film that I’ve seen thus far this year has matched the extent to which I was moved here. At the time of writing, I’ve seen the film twice and both times it made me shed tears more than once.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a patient but deeply moving and human story in the context of something much larger and more historic. It is a subtle technical achievement hiding in the thoughtful and, at times, heartbreaking portrait of a loving housemaid. Alfonso Cuarón has turned a deeply personal story into a true transportive and moving masterpiece, and it is nothing like most films Netflix acquires.
10 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.