• Photo: Carlos Somonte.

James Greenberg reviews “Roma”

I enjoy popcorn movies as much as the next person. They’re like a sugar high. But they also tend to lower expectations for what a truly great film can deliver. Really, when is the last time a film has stirred your imagination and stayed with you the next day, or the next year? Or a lifetime? That staying power is the mark of a classic motion picture, one that utilizes all the tools of the medium—sights, sounds, writing, performance—and ties them together with an overarching artistic vision. They don’t come along that often but Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is just such a film. It’s a miraculous accomplishment on every level.

Cuarón has been mulling over this highly personal story and how to tell it for years as he made films like Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013). Roma is set in Mexico City in 1970 and ’71. And despite the social and political unrest in the background, the problems here are closer to home. An upper middle-class family is shaken when the patriarch, a self-absorbed doctor (Fernando Grediago), abandons his wife, four children, a dog and a big American car, and takes off with his girlfriend. It’s an emotional time for everyone, but what makes the film so rich is that Cuarón has chosen to tell the story not through his perspective as the eldest son but through the eyes and ears of his beloved housekeeper and nanny Cleo (a remarkable Yalitza Aparicio). As an act of love and appreciation, the film is dedicated to Libo, Cuarón’s real life caregiver.

Given the film’s title, the use of professional and non-professional actors (Aparicio was discovered in a small village in Oaxaca), and luminous black and white cinematography, one might assume the film was inspired by socially conscious post-war Italian neo-realist pictures. But while films like The Bicycle Thief and other influences have helped form Cuarón’s cinematic sensibility, he is operating on a more ambitious and original canvas here. Roma is, in fact, the neighborhood where he grew up in Mexico City.

In the captivating opening sequence that sets the stage as the credits roll, a wash of soapy water slowly ebbs and flows, cleansing the courtyard of the family house until we eventually glimpse Cleo at work scrubbing the tiles. Finally, in a puddle of water we see the reflection of a jet plane tracking across the sky into the wide world beyond. Cuarón is suggesting a connection between the slice of life we’re about to witness in this small corner of Mexico and the larger human story we all share.

The largesse of spirit with which Cleo embraces the family permeates the whole film, but there is also an underlying sadness to her lot in life. Her ancestry is indigenous (she speaks Mixtec with her friends), and in the class structure of Mexico, opportunities for the poor are determined by the accident of their birth. It’s Cleo’s job to pick up the dog shit in the driveway, and probably always will be.

But the one thing that cuts across class lines is the pervasive and inbred sexism of the society. The mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), is just as powerless to control her life after her husband leaves, as is Cleo. In this regard, Roma is a deeply feminist film as it exposes the sham of the patriarchy. The men are basically seen as cowardly, violent and shallow, while the women give the film depth.

Roma is not an overtly political film; the characters don’t think in those terms and are just going about their lives. But the gears of society are grinding them down nonetheless. In the film’s biggest set piece, at the intersection between personal and public lives, Cuarón stages the infamous Corpus Christi massacre, a student protest turned deadly, with hundreds of extras, in the same busy crossroads where it took place. This kind of large-scale uprising is often hokey, even in the hands of the most skilled director, but Cuarón is not afraid to go headlong into the danger and chaos of the protest, making the unfortunate consequences really sting.

And throughout, Cuarón skillfully applies the lessons of cinema to give the film its exceptional lived-in quality, especially for the sound editing, using the multi-level separation of Doiby Atmos. Sounds large and small, like a marching band moving into and out of the frame, seem to come from all directions. Noises on and off camera are almost like characters in the overall drama and help fill in the bigger picture. And to further highlight the aural element, there is no musical score for the film; the period Mexican songs and bustle on the streets is the soundtrack to these lives.

But above all else, Roma is an extraordinary visual experience. The decision to use black and white connects the film to the past. But equally important is Cuarón’s choice to shoot digitally to avoid the grainy nostalgia of film stock. It’s a clear-eyed look into the past without the sentimentality that directors often resort to. Cuarón is simply saying, almost like a documentarian, this is the way things happened.

The painstaking casting down to the smallest roles is picture perfect and adds to the sense of reality. Three thousand candidates from all over Mexico were brought in to audition for the role of Cleo. Something about Aparicio’s sweetness and serenity, the intelligence in her face, reminded Cuarón of his own nanny. Even as a novice, Aparicio commands the screen with ease, every look and gesture suggesting more than words could convey. For instance, the unimpressed gaze she gives her boyfriend when he demonstrates his martial arts technique, strutting his stuff totally naked, communicates all that needs to be said about the foolishness of Mexican machismo.

Working in his native country for the first time since Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Cuarón served as his own cinematographer, thus minimizing the distance between his memories and what he captured on camera. His style of shooting favors long, wide takes that linger on images, giving viewers the chance to digest all the details and nuances of the moment. Some shots are so meticulously composed they look like photos from a family album. In fact, seventy percent of the furniture used on the set are real artifacts collected from family members. Among the many indelible images are the oversized family Ford trying to squeeze into the too small driveway of the house—and not making it; an airy seaside restaurant where Sofia tells her children that their father is not coming back; and Cleo trudging up the steep fire escape steps to her room on the top floor of the house.

Cuarón takes his time building the emotional connections that give the film its gravity. Perhaps most harrowing is a lengthy sequence near the end in which Cleo, having been impregnated and immediately dumped by her boy friend, is rushed to a hospital already in advanced labor. The doctors and nurses attending her are real doctors and nurses who treat her as they would an actual patient. The agonizing realization that things are not going well builds to a climax one detail at a time until the cumulative impact and immediacy are almost too much to take. People die left and right in films, oftentimes violently, but you’re unlikely to experience another scene this year with this kind of life and death tension.

The events Cuarón recreates in Roma are both private and
communal. And in some ways, that is the very definition of the movie-going experience at its deepest level. Roma feels like a personal truth shared. See this film with people you love.

James Greenberg was formerly editor in chief of the DGA Quarterly, the craft journal of the Directors Guild of America. He was film critic for Los Angeles magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. He started his career as a critic and reporter for Daily Variety. He is author of Roman Polanski: A Retrospective (Abrams), the only book of its kind that Polanski has ever participated in.