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Review: Roma

December 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A black and white homage to the Mexico of his youth and the women who raised him, Alfonso Caurón’s Roma is a beautiful and haunting work of art, that serves as the filmmaker’s first Spanish language film since Y Tu Mamá También in 2001.

The film unfolds through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young housekeeper and nanny working for a family in Mexico City’s Roma district in the early 1970s. When the father of the house (Fernando Grediaga) goes away on an extended business trip, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left to raise their four children, with Cleo taking over many of the parenting duties.

While she is raising a family that isn’t her own, Cleo shares a close bond with the children she is hired to look after, and they view her as a surrogate parent. Meanwhile, Cleo discovers that she has become pregnant by her unreliable boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and is dealing with other hardships in her life. The film unfolds with a gripping neorealist quality, often putting the focus on feeling and emotion rather than story, showing personal moments in the life of this family that happen against the backdrop of profound social changes in Mexico at the time.

This is the first film that Caurón has made since his stunning 2013 space survival drama Gravity, which was a gripping and spectacular work that practically demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible, yet at the same time served as a deeply personal character study that was intimately focused on the emotional journey of a woman fighting to overcome grief and depression. It’s this sense of intimacy that carries over into the story of Roma, and while the 1970s Mexico City setting couldn’t be more different from the vast expanses of space that provided the backdrop of Gravity, the canvas that this film is painted on is just as visually stunning, and it’s emotional impact just as deep.

Right from the opening shot of soapy water washing over floor tiles, Roma draws us in with an almost hypnotic quality. Many of the sequences unfold in long takes, with the camera locked in a wide master shot, and often slowly panning over the frame to follow the action. Shot on 65mm film and presented in starkly gorgeous black and white, these beautifully composed images are packed with little details that are able to reveal so much about the characters and this world, giving us the feeling of looking at moving photographs taken right out of time.

Throughout the 135 minute running time, Caurón is able to capture a mix of both small, intimate moments and big dramatic events, including an intense sequence depicting the tragic Corpus Christi massacre in 1971, a student demonstration that resulted in over a hundred of the protestors being shot and killed by authorities. Another sequence that unfolds in a hospital is one of the most devastating scenes of any film this year, made all the more so for the way that it unfolds in a single take, with the camera remaining completely still as we observe what is happening within the frame.

With Caurón in full command of his craft, not only directing the film but also acting as both editor and cinematographer as well, Roma fully immerses us in this world for a couple of hours through its mix of gorgeous imagery and naturalistic performances. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio delivers one of the most powerful and authentic turns of the year, beautifully portraying the internal emotions of Cleo as she masks her own pain for the sake of the children she is tasked with raising.

The film is going to be available on Netflix as of December 14th, but it’s worth seeing at least once on the big screen if you get the chance. Even Netflix seems to recognize this, with the streaming service making the choice to finally do away with their usual day-and-date release model and give the film a limited theatrical run before it is available to watch at home. Long live the cinema experience, and may we get more films like Roma to make it worth it.

Roma is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, with daily showings in 4K Dolby Atmos starting today, and selected screenings in 70mm starting on December 14th. Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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