MA 15+, 2 hrs 15 mins
Review by ©Jane Freebury
In all the best possible ways, Roma reminded me of being a film student again. Of seminar weekends sitting watching something from the archive that proved a revelation. A meditation on the personal and collective human experience, wonderful to watch, like this film here.
Roma is not a film from an unknown, of course, or a first-timer with something new to say. Far from it. The most recent film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was Gravity, an immersive, spellbinding journey in space that was huge at the box office, worldwide.
This film is something very close to the director’s heart, a story from his childhood in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family home, the street on which he lived and other locations in the city are meticulously recreated to look the way they did in the early 1970s.
Attention to detail contributes to Roma’s distinctive look and style. Filmed in widescreen, in digital black and white, it is an intimate story yet mostly told in long shot. Instead of using the close up much to establish connection, there are long sweeping, panning shots that keep everyone and everything in view, as though they are all of a piece. And editing is so minimal, and pacing so unhurried, you could be lulled into thinking it is in real time. The rhythms of everyday life get the dignity they deserve.
Besides directing and co-producing, Cuaron was writer, cinematographer and co-editor here.
Cuaron’s young self is not the main character, either. It is the former maid and nanny who looked after him and his brothers and sister, while their parents were often absent without leave. The narrative begins with the marriage between Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, on the point of breaking up.
After a long day at the hospital, Antonio enters the driveway in his Ford Galaxie, too large for the space. Not without comedy, he inches in tortuously, avoiding a scratch on the duco, but squishing the wheels over the piles of dog doo-doo scattered around. It is a constant source of irritation to Sofia, unreasonably so, and besides, Borras has nowhere else to do his business.
The family home is a generous space where children have large bedrooms, while the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actor like most of the cast here), and her domestic companion the cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), share a tiny room at the top of steep stairs above the roof and the washing lines. We note this and a hundred other inequities.
Cuaron collaborated with his former nanny and family maid during screenwriting. He dedicates this film to Libo and to her class, domestic workers who have looked after and been surrogate mothers to generations of the wealthy middle-class. A dramatic scene on a beach with surging surf demonstrates the risks she would go to for the children.
Cleo’s affair with an intense young man makes connection between events outside the home and political upheaval at the time, like a notorious massacre in the city of student demonstrators by paramilitaries. Their brief affair results in a pregnancy that only embeds her deeper within the family.
After his films on the epic scale, Gravity and Children of Men, and since the very memorable Y Tu Mama Tambien, an intimate, sensitive portrait of coming-of-age, Roma is a powerful reminder of the scope of Cuaron’s talent.
With its roots in both poetic realism and neo-realism, Roma is also a reminder of what cinema can be when not driven by commercial imperatives.
Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7