Posted by Matthew Thornton on Monday, February 4, 2019

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
Runtime: 135 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      The medium of film is special in that it can capture all of the actions and interactions of life, from the mundane to the exciting to the heart-breaking. In a sense, Roma is just peering into the real life of the past that director, writer, and cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) holds so dear. It is not a coincidence that this film feels so personal as Cuarón specifically made it as a reflection of his childhood and dedicated it to his childhood nanny Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez who played an integral role in raising him.

      Following the life of a middle-class family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City, the story progresses rather slowly but it is far from boring as the essentially flawless direction from scene to scene is fascinating to behold. Time is spent developing Cleo as a person and exhibiting the various facets of her life. At work, she answers to the household matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira) who is struggling with a relationship with an emotionally and often physically distant husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). The rest of the family consists of Sofia’s mother Teresa (Verónica García) and Sofia and Antonio’s four children who all very much love Cleo and implicitly consider her a crucial part of the family. When Cleo begins facing serious difficulties, her family is always there to support her and sees her as an extension of their family rather than just an employee. The internal family dynamics seem entirely natural which helps you to view them as real people and care about them on a personal level. Outside of work, Cleo interacts socially with her coworker Adela (Nancy García) and even has a brief romantic relationship with the intense and revolutionary-minded Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), which helps flesh out her humanity to a greater degree. Remarkably, with no formal acting training, Yalitza Aparicio delivers a sincere and multidimensional performance as she portrays Cleo’s gentle subservience and care in her work as well as genuine emotions of joy, grief, and fear all in a subdued and nuanced manner. An important facet of her character is guilt and she effortlessly portrays a woman attempting to deal with her inner turmoil stemming from a guilt-wracked conscience. No performance in this film is anything short of fantastic, including all of the child actors.

      Every aspect of this film is understated yet highly effective, from the monochrome color palette used to indicate that this is a trip into the past for Cuarón to the primarily soft yet precise sound design which fills out the atmosphere of every setting in Mexico City. It goes without saying but Cuarón is a master behind the camera. Much like real life, this film was shot in sequence. Outside of his sophisticated camera dynamics, Cuarón’s static framing is precise and draws attention to actors’ visual performances that are intricately directed. Each character’s emotions and state of mind are visually displayed and in key moments of the film there is no need for dialogue. As with most of his previous works, he seems to flawlessly pull off complicated extended takes and set pieces. To see how fine-tuned the detail in his direction is, just pay attention to how the extras are directed in each scene. Complicated actions are often happening in both the foreground and background and you are scanning the entire frame at points to see specific actions; it is rare to see shots that are put together this impressively. For example, there is a scene in which several main characters are shopping inside a furniture store on an above-ground-level floor when a protest breaks out in the city street below. The camera pans so that you are seeing the action outside in sequence with characters’ reactions from the inside. However, it doesn’t stop there. With only a single cut, the action moves inside the store as the camera pans back around to witness a protester sprinting indoors for refuge from the external violence; the camera lingers at the end of this scene and with no dialogue spoken reaches one of the most intense emotional peaks of the entire film. Soon after, there is an even-more-intense set of extended-take sequences in a hospital that just went places I did not expect and left me astonished. By fluidly putting together these thrilling and dexterously-executed extended sequences, Cuarón holds the audience’s attention in a vise-grip as there is not even a minute level of discontinuity during which you can exhale. I could go on and on about the technical merits, but I will conclude by simply saying that this film has hands down the best cinematography and sound design of the year.

      Watching this film a second time, I started catching onto a number of different allusions and moments of foreshadowing and symbolism that I will not delve into too deeply. There are a number of motifs throughout that give it more style and substance. Underneath the narrative, the themes of progression of life as well as death and rebirth are prominent throughout this film. The political backdrop for this film is one of social unrest and there is subtle social commentary also at play here. The more you watch the film, the more you glean and the more you are impressed with the writing and visual presentation.

      By the time the film concludes, you can easily see that this was years in the making inside Cuarón’s brain and is very much the personal outpouring of a single person’s life and vision. I enjoyed every minute of this film, and I could tell it was a labor of love. It is rare to see such a tour de force that combines masterful cinematography with such a gripping depiction of the cross-section of a human life. This is without a doubt one of my favorite films from not only this year but this decade, and I hope to revisit it often. I highly recommend that you do the same.

RATING: ★★★★½

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