Roma (2018) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A simple but sublime slice of life from Alfonso Cuarón

It is not so easy to describe how Alfonso Cuarón’s new film “Roma”, which recently won the Golden Lion award at the Venice International Festival, exactly worked on me. During its first 30 minutes, I wondered why many critics are so enthusiastic about it, though I admired its top-notch technical aspects including impeccable period atmosphere and details. During its next 60 minutes, I somehow kept paying attention to a series of small moments unfolded on the screen, though I still had some reservation on it. During its last 45 minutes, I was surprised to realize how much I was absorbed in its plain but effortless narrative, and then I was completely knocked down by several strong emotional moments, which made me fully understand not only what it is about but also how it is about.

During the opening scene which will further resonate with two other scenes later in the film, we are introduced to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young live-in housekeeper working for a middle-class family living in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, 1970. As she goes through her mundane daily life mainly consisting of numerous domestic works including cleaning and taking care of her employers’ children, we get to know a bit about others in the house including her co-worker Adela (Nancy García), and then we gradually come to sense the growing strain inside the house. While Cleo’s employers Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) look fine on the surface at first, the deterioration of their marital relationship is evident from Antonio’s frequent absence, and there eventually comes a point where Antonio suddenly leaves while telling his children that he will be in Canada for a while due to his work.

Through Cleo’s viewpoint, we get some glimpses into how Sofia tries to protect her children from her painful situation. At one point, she has her children write letters to their father even though she knows well that he will not care much, and she later takes her children and Cleo to a rural ranch owned by one of her friends during the winter holiday season, but, not so surprisingly, her children eventually come to grasp what is going on between their parents just like Cleo and Adela, especially after one of her children happens to spot something undeniable on a street.

Meanwhile, Cleo finds herself in a very serious trouble. During her free time, she usually hangs around with a lad named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and, as shown from a humorous scene where he proudly demonstrates his physical ability in front of her as a sort of foreplay, their relationship has already gone to a certain stage, but then things get complicated when she notices a possible sign of pregnancy one day. As soon as she tells him about that, Fermín promptly walks away from her without any hesitation, and Cleo surely feels hurt a lot by her boyfriend’s irresponsibility while not knowing what to do about her circumstance, but, at least, she gets considerable sympathy and support from Sofia, who instantly takes Cleo to a local hospital for confirming her pregnancy after hearing her tearful confession.

Now it sounds like a typical domestic melodrama, but the movie calmly lets its story and characters roll along a series of episodic moments instead, which may feel trivial at first but come to contribute to the mood and narrative momentum of the film bit by bit. As we observe more of Cleo and other characters around her, they come to as real ordinary human characters with the vivid sense of life, and that is the main reason why the key sequences during its second half are emotionally striking to say the least.

This is all the more amazing considering that, on the surface, the movie does not seem to strive for any dramatic effect throughout its 135-minute running time. Cuarón, who not only wrote the screenplay but also worked as the cinematographer/co-editor of his movie, did a masterful job of establishing the palpable period background filled with authentic details and some autobiographical elements from his childhood years, and his stark black and white cinematography subtly shines with precise camera movement and careful scene composition. We usually watch the characters in the film from the distance, but, through its unobtrusive visual approach coupled with succinct editing, we slowly become immersed in their realistic world even before we notice that, and we often feel like an unseen observer hanging around them.

While two crucial sequences later in the story are surely its dramatic highpoint, there are other moments which have grown on my mind after I watched the movie yesterday. I liked a sequence revolving around the winter holiday party held at the ranch house, which unexpectedly culminates to a sudden urgent incident happening outside. I enjoyed a rather funny scene involved with a group of young trainees and a TV celebrity, which is subsequently developed into a chilling moment associated with a horrendous real-life incident which happened on June 10, 1971. And I appreciated the last shot of the film, which looks very simple but is one of the most sublime closing shots I have ever watched during recent years.

The main cast members of the film, most of whom are non-professional performers, thoroughly embody their respective characters without any single artificial moment. Although she has no previous acting experience, Yalitza Aparicio humbly and delicately carries the movie with her seemingly plain but complex performance full of human nuances, and it is surely one of the best movie performances of this year. In case of other substantial performers in the film, they appropriately revolve around Aparicio while never overshadowing her, and Marina de Tavira, Nancy García, and Verónica García deserve to be mentioned for their fine supporting performances.

Overall, “Roma”, which will be available on Netflix this Friday, another superb achievement from Cuarón who previously impressed and dazzled us with “Y tu mamá también” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), and “Gravity” (2013), which was incidentally my No.1 movie of 2013. Although it demands considerable attention and patience from you especially during its first half, it will give you one of the most powerful movie experiences of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to watch it a movie theater for fully appreciating its greatness. As many movie critics already said, this is indeed the best film of 2018.

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5 Responses to Roma (2018) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A simple but sublime slice of life from Alfonso Cuarón

  1. I grew up just around the corner from this family Seongyong, and during the same time period as well.
    Rememeber the scene where the whole family goes to the movies? If Cuaron had shot their whole trajectory they would have passed right in front of my childhood home. What’s even more bizarre is that I watched “Roma” at that same theater depicted in the movie.

    SC: That is quite an odd experience. Thanks for your comment, Gerardo.

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