Roma is a stunning, often heartbreaking film, but it requires patience to realize where writer-director Alfonso Cuarón is taking us. If you surrender to him, as I did, you will be amply rewarded. It’s a memory piece inspired by the filmmaker’s youth, circa 1970, in a neighborhood of Mexico City called Roma. Cuarón wrote, directed, edited, produced and even photographed the picture.
Everything we see is a replica of things as he remembers them: his family home, the furniture and artwork on the walls, the cars parked on the street. Even the neighbors were cast to resemble the people he recalls. It’s akin to Italian neorealism: a slice of life abut a middle-class family with a loving mother, grandmother, and four young, unruly children. They have two in help, including a devoted housemaid who has troubles of her own, especially when she becomes pregnant.
One day the father walks out on his family. The kids don’t realize what’s happening because their mother maintains a ruse that he’s away on business. She finally confesses the truth while they’re on vacation and her children are devastated. All of the mundane details of day-to-day life build to an extraordinary, highly emotional climax at the beach that underscores the strength of their family ties. That includes their housemaid, who is essentially a member of that clan.
Cuarón doesn’t spoon-feed his audience; it’s up to us to determine the ever-shifting focus of this sprawling story. Seemingly simple details all play a role in the creation of an intricate and intimate mosaic: a pail of water splashing on a sidewalk in the early morning, a sudden burst of student rioting, a trip to the movies to see Terry-Thomas and Louis de Funes in La Grande Vadrouille and later, the Hollywood film Marooned.
The drama is so powerful that it will play in any medium, but seeing it on a theater screen in widescreen black & white is the ultimate experience. (Cuarón shot the film with an Alexa 65 camera.) The absence of a music score means that director trusts the innate power of his material as well as his actors, mostly first-timers like Yalitza Aparicio (as the maid), who holds her own alongside a professional actress like Marina de Tavira (as the mother).
Roma literally took my breath away. It is a masterwork by one of the world’s most versatile filmmakers, and will be justifiably praised as the best film of 2018.