If there’s one film in 2018 that is guaranteed to garner Oscar buzz due to director recognition alone, it’s Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron‘s Roma. Ever since making his mark with his critically acclaimed drama Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron has gone on to making fantastic films that are commercially viable as well as technically proficient; films like the dystopian film Children of Men and the space exploration flick Gravity.
What made all of those films succeed for all audiences is Cuaron’s assured hand at mixing simple visual storytelling with technical prowess. For his latest film, he ventures back to a smaller-scale, intimate story that is more personal, intimate and contemplative. Will the film be just as well-regarded as his prior works, or will it be seen as just a minor entry in his filmography?
Set in Mexico City during the early 1970’s, the story follows the family of Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), through the eyes of a maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). We follow the lives of the family and Cleo, living their lives through many trials and tribulations, such as pregnancies, lost love, homesickness, moments of near death and love.
Now that may be a very succinct synopsis, but thankfully my praise for the film won’t be because Roma is one of the best films of the year. For a film like Roma to work as well as it does, you would have to believe you are in the world of the film and director Alfonso Cuaron and the cast and crew succeed with flying colors.
Cuaron’s attention to detail of the time period makes the immersion of the story incredibly easygoing, partially thanks to the decision to cast all Mexican actors, whom most make their acting debut. And thankfully, they all contribute amazing work here, thanks to the rich characterizations in the script written by Cuaron. Yalitza Aparicio in particular, gives a fantastic performance as Cleo, as she conveys the inner turmoils and utmost dedication of her character in a compelling nuanced fashion.
We have memorable characters including the introverted yet extremely loyal Cleo to the uninitiated yet fierce martial arts fanatic boyfriend of Cleo, Fermin to the dedicated yet gradually crumbling mother, Sofia and the arrogant and philandering father going through denial, Antonio, and down to the minor roles like the amusingly clairvoyant young boy, Pepe.
They are all compelling people that Cuaron has a strong affinity towards, and he easily gets the audience to do likewise. Even when characters make questionable decisions (like abandoning people), Cuaron never judges them but he does offer context to their actions and avoids easy answers or sanctimonious solutions to their decisions.
Cuaron also lends to his film images of great beauty, understated humour and heartfelt pathos to the themes of the story, which includes domestic turmoils, political conflicts, love, family and heartbreak, and it is all thanks to his assured handling of visual storytelling.
One scene involving a character going through labor (it can be also be seen as a callback to a scene in Children of Men) is filled with nerve-wracking tension and is beautifully shot (with Cuaron as cinematographer) with elongated takes that never calls attention to itself. Complimented with the strong characterizations, it becomes easy to be swept up by the wave of emotions that Cuaron is able to convey. Even the sound design works just as effectively as the visuals, as the sounds of the wind, the barking of the dogs and the sounds of planes flying past hint moments of either peace, unrest and even hope.
The same goes for a scene involving the haunting re-staging of the Corpus Christi Massacre, which involves a shocking yet befitting character reveal; an increasingly hallucinatory scene involving a family celebration that gets interrupted by a forest fire that gradually becomes a successful family effort to put the fire out; as well as the heartbreaking climax, which brings together high stakes and character revelations so beautifully.
Even during times of mundane activity like Antonio or Sofia parking a car through the garage or Cleo cleaning up after the dog, Borras, it is an illuminating way of providing perspectives of characters without the need for scenes of exposition, flashbacks, relentless use of nostalgia nor the blatant use of a musical score telegraphing how the audience should feel.
One example is how children are seen playing out in streets or places that look dilapidated, and yet they play in make-believe situations (which is an amusing callback to his prior film, Gravity) that provide a temporary escape of their living conditions.
Another example is when Cleo complacently cleans up the leavings of the dog in the garage and it could either symbolize a losing battle that Cleo is going through in terms of her position in life or it could be seen as a way Cleo going through homesickness and the cleaning represents her reminiscing her earlier chapter in life, living in her home village.
Regardless, Cuaron adeptly brings out the reality and beauty of those situations and provides ample context for the audience to provide plenty of food-for-thought and. Scenes with such beauty could have easily made the film become a sort of quasi-fantasy or a piece of whimsy which could alienate the audience, but Cuaron never falls for that trap, aiming for a contemplative and realistic approach i.e. during a scene set in a hospital, an earthquake occurs, which foreshadows the impending darkness that is to come.
But thankfully, what is impending is the resounding success that is Roma. With beautifully profound storytelling, strong characterizations, meticulous attention to period detail and heartfelt direction, Roma is one of the best films of 2018 and it deserves all the praise from critics. If you have the chance to see Roma on the big screen, please do so.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Roma screens as the opening film of The Cine Latino Film Festival from tonight, 14th November, until 9th December, at various Palace cinemas around Australia. For more tickets head to the official website.