Alfonso Cuarón has made a masterpiece or two before. Children of Men is arguably one of the best films of the 2000's and he deserves credit for redirecting the Harry Potter series to something that worked for all ages. Roma is his most personal and daring film. Not daring as say the technical ambitions of Gravity, but in its approach to memory. This is a quiet, meditative picture that will likely struggle to find audiences, especially on Netflix who is distributing the film. Make no mistake the film is worth your time and seek it out in the theater, not at home.
Cuarón has talked about how personal a project this is. He is pulling the memories of his childhood experiences and giving them an Italian neo-realist, grandiose treatment. He not only wrote the film and produced it, he also serves as the film's editor and cinematographer.
Roma immerses us into the world of a 1970's Mexico City neighborhood. It is the place Cuarón few up in. The home that the majority of the film takes place in was painstakingly recreated to match his childhood home. His meticulous style that he has brought to all his projects is doing something new here, it is helping to recreate memories.
The same level of craft was applied to the picture's protagonist. Cuarón searched several villages to land on Yalitza Aparicio, a schoolteacher with no acting experience. She is absolutely flawless as Cleo, the live-in maid to a large family. Aparicio's real-life best friend plays Cleo's best friend in the film. The result is electrifying in how natural the performance feels.
Roma has a plot that slowly develops but this is not a film driven by action. Instead it is a wide-screen landscape of several lives, filtered through the perspective of an adult reflecting on childhood. The film is better viewed in terms of its themes than what happens in it. The nature of family, how it survives the many tragedies life can contain is one. Sisterhood and the power and strength of women is another.
The film is also about our senses. The Dolby Atmos sound design is like nothing I have ever experienced. The film is at times more heard than seen. The large-format cinematography envelopes the viewer in the environment of its characters.
While we follow Cleo through her repetitive days, doing laundry and washing the floors, we begin to get to know the family she works for. Sofie (Marina de Tavira) is the matriarch who's stoic nature helps to protect her children from the darker realities of life. The father is largely absent. This is by design as the film connects Cleo and Sofia in several ways. They both go through crises brought on by the men they choose to love. Sofia sees her husband leave and Cleo becomes pregnant by a man who has no intention of being a father. As much as Roma is about the strength of mothers and women, it is also about the cowardliness of men.
Roma is an unforgettable experience. I have been moved by it days after seeing it. The film has a way of not fully revealing its impact immediately. We rarely see films of such a personal nature that are also so meticulously crafted in such grand ways.