Contemporary Mexican cinema has been shaped, and popularised, by three auteurs: Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuaron. The third director is arguably the most successful of the trio, a position that looks to have been cemented with his latest release, a feature that is beautiful and brutal in equal measure.
In the suburb of Roma, Mexico City resides an upper-middle class family who are the descendants of Spanish migrants. The household’s patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a doctor at a local hospital, while his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) works as an academic. The couple share their home with a live-in housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who attends to the needs of everybody in the family, including the children and Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Veronica Garcia).
Roma takes place in the early 1970s, a time of great upheaval not just in Mexico, but in the house of Antonio and Sofia. The former is spending countless hours away from home, apparently attending international medical conferences; the latter, suspecting that her husband is having an affair, has entered a state of depression, leaving her unable to parent. Even Cleo is experiencing turbulence in her life, fearing she will lose her job after falling pregnant to her lover Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).
Cuaron is listed as a producer, writer, editor and director of Roma, marking his first feature-length narrative since Gravity five years ago. His latest release is remarkably different to his previous effort, and those dissimilarities are quite clear to see – unlike its predecessor, this picture is photographed in greyscale, has characters speaking in Spanish and Mixtec, is set in the past, and has nothing to do with space travel, save for a brief reference to Stranded, an old sci-fi film that few modern audiences would be familiar with.
The cinematography, which Cuaron is credited for also, is nothing short of exquisite. Even in black-and-white, the scenery looks vibrant and the viewer can clearly see the happenings on-screen. These images are made even more pleasing to the eye through the utilisation of panning shots, tracking shots and symmetrical framing, the kind of stylings that are typically utilised by Wes Anderson, only here, the movement of the camera is much smoother and less prone to rapid zooming.
Few of the actors that appear in Roma are household names – even in their home country of Mexico – but after their endeavours here, one can expect to see their monikers more often. This is especially for Yalitza Aparicio who, despite this being her most high-profile and VERY FIRST role in a feature film, plays Cleo with the utmost sincerity and conviction. One of the picture’s highlights sees her giving birth prematurely, a harrowing scene that stays with the viewer long after the movie has ended.
Cleo’s labour isn’t the only moment that evokes such emotions. As mentioned above, the story of Roma transpires during a very contentious period of Mexico’s past, one that is not shied-away from. Often considered the darkest event of that era is the Corpus Christi massacre, which saw dozens of protesting students shot and killed by the Mexican militia. The massacre is, quite bravely, re-enacted in Roma with an unsettling realism, capturing the trauma, horror and inhumanity of a truly shocking moment.
All of this has led Roma to become the front-runner for the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, an honour it most certainly deserves, but the film does not escape criticism. The pacing is lethargic, particularly during the first act, thereby lessening the viewer’s interest in the story when it should be emboldening it. One could also take issue with the contentious positioning of Cleo’s role within the household – Sofia treats her maid as if she’s disposable, yet shows her affectionate sympathy on occasion, which is baffling.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to see Cleo’s interactions with the family. She treats each of Sofia’s children with warmth and affection, appearing to have a motherly bond with all of them – she even has a different routine for waking each child in the morning. While they can be curt towards their housekeeper, both Sofia and her mother accept Cleo as a welcome member of their home, with the latter even helping to buy a crib for the mother-to-be. Furthermore, there seems to be a genuine love between all members of the household, which is rather endearing.
With Roma, Alfonso Cuaron has provided audiences with a compelling look at life in Mexico during the Seventies. Touching and emotional, it’s a picture that leaves a lasting impact on the viewer, not least because of its performances and confronting, if remarkable, scenes. Should it be awarded Best Picture as predicted, it would be a win most thoroughly deserved.
One thought on “Review: Roma”
I really tried to enjoy it, but I couldn’t. I admire its merits from a cinematographic (is that even a word?) point of view, but I thought the movie was too slow and the plot quite thin.
Different strokes for different folks, I guess. =D
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