It would be difficult not to have heard of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie “Roma” over the past several weeks. Since its release at the Venice Film Festival last summer, it has generated loads of hype and in the past month you’ve probably seen posters advertising the movie plastered on bus stops, billboards and even entire walls of buildings.
Needless to say, Mexico is proud of this homegrown director’s latest work, and with good reason. It’s a semi-autobiographical movie about a year in the life of a Mexican family living in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early 1970s. Focusing on the family’s indigenous housekeeper, the movie’s exquisite cinematography – it is shot in black and white – gives it a tasteful and cinematic quality that brings beauty to even the most mundane scenes.
One should mention just how personal this movie is to Cuarón. Not only is he the director and cinematographer, but he also wrote, produced and edited the film. It is very apparent how important it was to him to recapture his upbringing with immense attention to detail. Starting with the house, the movie’s main setting, each item onscreen is meticulously planned. The crockery the family uses, the kids’ toys, the posters on the walls, the furniture and décor have all been selected with great care. Moving out into the city, one sees the same production values: the muscle cars lining the streets, the window displays of the stores, carefully selected locations that that look as though they’ve been unchanged for the last 50 years.
Something that hasn’t changed over time is the soundscape of this country. If you live in Mexico now, the noises and sounds of the movie will be outstandingly familiar to you, as we still hear them on a daily basis. In the excellent soundtrack you will hear dogs incessantly barking, the piercing whistle of vendors of just-baked camotes (sweet potatoes) and the various instruments and echoing songs of a plethora of street salesmen.
The story examines a series of contrasting themes, many of which afflict Mexico today. It accurately portrays the difference in social class, the ambivalence of the rich and the daily struggle of the poor. We see the clash of modern culture with the fading indigenous culture., scenes with moments of sadness that are simultaneously juxtaposed with joyful ones, of tranquillity that then explode into the student-led violence of the era.
Another distinguishing quality of the movie is that it focuses on two female lead characters. They come from completely different economic and cultural backgrounds yet both are dealt a similar misfortune and are left having to fend for themselves. However, it is the journey of Cleo the housekeeper that we empathize with most. Her relationship with the children raises the question of what it is that truly makes a family. At times she appears to be beloved and indispensable but then there are other moments where she is kept at a distance and must endure the misplaced blame of her employers. The effects of the character’s trials and tribulations are well portrayed in the performance of the Mixtec actress, Yalitza Aparicio. A teacher by training, she shines in her debut role.
Do not expect an action-packed tale. While the plot does have some intense and climactic moments, overall it is not afraid to take its time and linger on stunning, stationary shots that give the audience a chance to fully take in what they are watching. Even though the duration is slightly over two hours, the fluid pacing of the movie does not make it feel overly long.
Roma is well on its way to scooping up a slew of awards and has already generated hundreds of stellar reviews. Many viewers may only be able to enjoy it simply as entertainment but those of us who are fortunate to live in Mexico will probably discover even more pleasure in Cuarón’s richly developed world.
Not only does “Roma” sparkle with visual beauty, commendable performances and a captivating story to tell, but Cuarón’s personal touches give the movie a beating heart and make it a spellbinding piece of work that stays with you long after the credits roll.
“Roma” is now available on Netflix, but if you have the chance to see the film in a movie theater, your experience will be much enhanced.