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Alfonso Cuarón invites us to his childhood and bares his soul.

This is an advance review out of the Toronto International Film Festival. Roma will debut on Netflix later this year.

Roger Ebert once wrote that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and nothing encapsulates that sentiment better than Roma. Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón has traded the epic vastness of space for an intimate story about his own childhood and the women who raised him. Whether you grew up in a similar situation, or just have a beating heart, Roma pulls all the right strings at the right moments to make you feel like you’ve known this family your whole life.

Cuarón says Roma is 90% based on his own childhood, and based on the level of detail and care, it shows. We follow a chapter in the life of Cleo (first-time actress and breakout star Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper in the titular middle-class neighborhood Roma, in Mexico City during the early ‘70s. She works for a family of three boys and a girl. Cleo is more than just a maid, more often than not acting as a surrogate mother to the children in the absence of their parents. She tucks the children in at night, helps them get dressed, and makes sure they get to school on time. She also has the patience of a saint, as when the parents are actually in the house, they are a constant reminder that Cleo is not really a part of their family. While they are kind to her, she is still only “the help”. While Latin-Americans will especially identify with the relationship between housekeepers and the families they work for, Cuarón makes sure that no matter your life experiences, you will still care for this family.

Everything changes for Cleo after an affair results in a pregnancy. At the same time, the matriarch of the family, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), slowly realizes her husband is not coming back from his business trip. Despite this being a mostly autobiographical film, Cuarón, who also wrote Roma, mostly ignores the children’s story. Instead, he places his focus on Cleo and Sofia, and explores the theme of men avoiding their responsibilities and leaving women to deal with the repercussions.

Not satisfied with just writing and directing, Alfonso Cuarón also shot the film, working without his regular cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) for the first time since The Prisoner of Azkaban. The camera acts as a ghost from the present, looking into the past. Roma rarely uses close-ups, instead it keeps the audience distant. We still get Cuarón’s signature long takes, which he combines with constant lateral pans to show Cleo’s surroundings, forcing us to bear witness to the events, unable to change anything. The film’s breathtaking 65mm cinematography is a beauty to look at, loaded with wide shots that fill every frame with rich details that makes its Netflix release a dilemma. On the one hand, this film demands repeated and close viewings to dissect everything in the background, yet the scope and compositions of this black-and-white film screams for big cinema screen. The film also has a total lack of a music score, which helps in making you feel like you are watching not just a movie, but a series of flashes from the past.

As the film keeps going, the macro to the micro becomes more noticeable. While the main story is all about Cleo navigating her pregnancy, we are presented with tragic events and the beginnings of social change, all in the background. Cleo is of Mixtec heritage, and half of her dialogue is spoken in this dialect, which leads to an exploration of class division and how the indigenous population of Mexico and Latin America are treated differently. A central theme is that of empathy, and makeshift families forming out of tragedy. As Cleo’s due date grows closer, her relationship with the family develops. At the same time, Cuarón keeps little moments happening in the background such as an earthquake, a forest fire, or a street fight that explodes once the film reaches its recreation of the Corpus Christi massacre. Out of the blue the film explores this student protest from 1971 that resulted in tragedy once paramilitary troops start mowing down people. It’s a heart-stopping sequence with powerful contemporary resonance, coming at a time where peaceful protests are constantly under attack all over the world..

With Roma, Alfonso Cuarón has taken on the role of a memory art curator, carefully selecting chapters from his life and rearranging them into a powerful empathy factory. Every single frame could be hung as a painting, every performance feels natural and powerful. Be prepared to hear the name Yalizta Aparicio all the time during awards season, as this breakout star delivers one of the most powerful and subtle performances in the film, with a vulnerability found only in first-time actors yet with the poise of a veteran.

The Verdict

Roma feels grandiose, but it stays grounded in a powerful and personal story about family. The exploration of political upheaval, class and gender inequalities make this an important film, but the fact that it always remains grounded in its personal story makes Roma a compelling and emotional film, shot masterfully by a veteran director who finally created his masterpiece.


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