‘Roma’ Finds Alfonso Cuarón at an Artistic Zenith

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(2018—Director: Alfonso Cuarón)

— by Renard N. Bansale

★★★★★
(out of 5 stars) 

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, women, we always are alone.” — Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) to Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio)

Potential spoilers below

Cinema in 2013 bolsters multiple candidates for “the most year-defining film”. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the North American domestic box office champion, served as the peak of arguably the most worthwhile young adult novel series adapted for the silver screen, post-Harry Potter. 12 Years a Slave, the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, refueled cultural and political conversations on racial inequality and Black American identity. Finally, Disney unleashed Frozen onto the world, convincing many that a new Disney Silver Age has come upon them.

Only one film, however, genuinely caught the whole filmgoing spectrum by surprise, without the benefit of a huge marketing budget to generate much pre-release buzz. Seven years after the release of his underrated masterpiece Children of Men, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón released the sci-fi thriller Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. For 91 minutes, Cuarón, Bullock, and a peerless visual effects crew gave audiences a cinematic experience like no other. Some saw this movie when it first opened and that “some” grew to “many” within days, resulting in strong box office legs. Gravity deserved all the money it earned, all the seven Oscars it won, and remains one of my top ten films of the 2010s.

Now, five years after Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón makes his big-screen comeback with Roma, a semi-autobiographical drama set in early-’70s México City and featuring the talents of a predominantly-Mexican cast and crew of unknowns. Unlike Gravity, though, Roma might appear to cater more to the arthouse and “slow cinema” crowd. Worse yet, its acquisition by Netflix means that most of its viewers will only get to see this movie in the comfort of their living rooms.

To say that Roma demands one to witness it on the big screen is a severe understatement.

It is 1970, going on 1971, in the Colonia Roma district of México City. The soft-spoken yet headstrong Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) works as a maid in the household of Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira). Señora Sofía is married to Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, and with them include their four children, Sofía’s elderly mother Teresa (Verónica García), and Adela (Nancy García García), another maid. Every day, Cleo and Adela coast through their routine of cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, taking the kids to school and back, tucking them in at night, and waking them up in the morning. Even when Cleo’s boyfriend and martial arts devotee Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) abandons her after she discovers that she has conceived, this routine continues. Despite the gradual and tense erosion of Señora Sofía and Dr. Antonio’s marriage and Sofía’s best efforts to hide this from their four children under the guise of Antonio’s “research” trips abroad, this cycle of caring for the family home goes on.

One long year of, among many other things, cleaning up the poop left by family dog Borras in the narrow driveway awaits.

2001’s Y Tu Mamá También was Alfonso Cuarón’s last Spanish language movie project and Roma, seventeen years later, feels like a long-awaited homecoming for him. And what a homecoming it is. I daresay Roma is the 2018 film wherein one can sense one artist in precise control of each and every frame the most.* Whereas Bradley Cooper held four roles on A Star Is Born, Cuarón tops him with five—three of which are solo efforts. While Cooper’s directorial debut displays a raw energy and a resulting touch of fatigue, Cuarón’s eighth directorial outing appears all but effortless, not to mention monumental. So too is the experience of watching Roma, its 135 minutes exhausting audiences with urgency, peace, and wonder—the polar opposite of the “year in a day” of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.

It matters little that newcomer Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo serves as the sturdy yet passive anchor of Roma and that, save for perhaps Marina de Tavira as Señora Sofía, one will not necessarily invest in every supporting character. (Dr. Antonio and Fermín, the cast’s two most prominent males, can feel designed to draw the resentment of viewers.) Their natural performances serve master Cuarón’s vision—that is, ninety percent long take wide shots, give or take. Scenes like the opening driveway wash, the forest fire to welcome 1971, the traumatic and bloody protest, the heart-wrenching baby delivery, and perhaps the most depressing ice cream scene in cinema history are so well-rehearsed and well-blocked that one soon asks, “How can a director hold that much power?”

In all honesty, one cannot put a movie like Roma into words. They must see it for themselves. They must imagine climbing into a flying DeLorean to set off for México City in 1971 and witnessing Cleo’s story unfold before their very eyes with such urgency that blinking would become an insult.

Roma is one of the best films of the 2010s, period. Please do not miss the chance to watch it on the big screen. I promise that you will not regret it.

*Possible exceptions in 2018 include Wes Anderson, Andrew Dosunmu, Masaaki Yuasa, Lynne Ramsay, and Steve McQueen. 

(Parental Note: Roma has been rated R by the MPAA “for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “disturbing images” and “strong language”.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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