At the New York Film Festival, ‘Roma’ provides an of-the-moment, beautiful ode to motherhood in all forms
That Alfonso Cuarón’s newest masterpiece Roma will be seen by the majority of audiences on Netflix is a blessing and a curse. On the downside, a movie this gorgeous and with such powerful sound design deserves to be seen in only the biggest theaters with the best speakers. But the advantage is that Netflix will allow millions of people across the world the ability to see what might be the best film that Cuarón has made to date, a feat that I would not have thought possible before.
Continuing in the grand tradition of such films as Gone with the Wind or George Stevens’s Giant, the only word that can properly describe Roma would be epic. From the visual style—shot in black and white on film by Cuarón himself as a cinematographer—to the storyline and even going into the performances, Roma is a massive movie, yet the personal nature of the movie is never lost. Cuarón builds a semi-autobiography, one that feels all too realistic in the modern world.
The film follows a family in Mexico City in the early 1970s, led by matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira) after her husband takes an extended business trip. But the true power of the house falls on Cleo, a maid and nanny played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. A teaching student before auditioning for the role, Aparicio debuts with a monumental role that she somehow manages to nail, the kind of performance that stars are born from. Displaying a maternalistic nature that never feels artificial, Cleo is made to bear witness to the collapse of her own life, her country, and the family she takes care of over a caustic period in Mexican history. Yet in the process, Cleo becomes a protagonist unlike most you will see this year, demanding the audience live alongside her instead of guessing her next action.
The idea of motherhood is at the core of Roma, with both Sofia and Cleo attempting to play the role of the mother to Sofia’s four kids, each figuring out the new frontiers of the world in a period of change. Cuarón (who alongside directing and shooting also edited, produced and wrote the film) gives every character just enough depth to make their actions sensible but leaves all ambiguous enough that you can truly believe anything can happen next. In one moment a character can have a solemn conversation about lost love, and a line later remembers that they probably need to put on pants before traveling across the city. The film is as funny as it is tragic, where the same image can have a million meanings depending on how you approach it as an audience member.
The stark photography of the movie captures every moment of horror and humor with beautiful and crisp visuals, with a massive fire given the same visual power as a dog’s excrement under a car tire. To Cuarón’s eye, everything is treated equally. At times there is almost too much presented to the viewer, but it all amounts to a perfectly focused story, even if it takes time to become clear. The opening shot is seemingly just a still image of tiles, but slowly a reflection forms of an airplane flying above, proving the movie will always have another angle of the story to reveal.
Layered with heart and terror, Roma will stick with you long after you leave the theater. Equal parts a story about family, a condemnation of capitalism, a satire of male privilege and beyond, Roma just works. In the pantheon of Cuarón’s storied career, it is safe to say this will be remembered as one of his best.
ROMA will premiere on Netflix and in theaters on December 14th