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TIFF: Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" Triumph

by Nathaniel R

Alfonso Cuarón's jaw-dropping Roma is inspired by his childhood in Mexico but it's no traditional memoir. Rather than focusing on his own life, he spins a slow-burn fictional memoir, imagining the emotional space occupied by the live-in maid/nanny who helped raise him...

The protagonist Cleo is played simply but beautifully by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, in both Spanish (with her employer family) and Mixtec (the language of indigenous Mesoamericans, with her co-workers). Cleo is beloved by the family she works for, especially the children. Though the parents also clearly like her, the stressed-out mother (fine work from Marina de Tavira) and a largely absent doctor father, they don't seem fully aware of the ways in which they also exploit her. She's part of the family until she isn't... it's her day off until they reflexively ask her to do things and so on. But she's a dutiful employee. Well, mostly. That dog poop she never cleans up is one of the movie's many hyper-specific details that bring both deepy enjoyable humor and pathos along with them as they reoccur. Another recurring bit that lands every time -- the family's wide car having trouble in the narrow driveway.

Though Cleo has one very real plot point worry (an unplanned pregnancy), Roma isn't really a character study of this woman so much as an observation of her daily routines. Cleo's meekness in life and for the cameras might not work for all viewers, but it worked for this one: not every person in real life is as aggressive and outgoing as self-actualized movie characters!  For this observational/passive reason I continue to worry about Netflix as Roma's home. The film is very much an immersive cumulative experience rather than a traditional story. In the first 10 minutes, for example, nothing happens at all but for hypnotic credits, opening titles against a wet floor, and prolongued takes of Cleo cleaning house and doing laundry. Not the grabbiest of beginnings for the click-away sampling culture of streaming! But in a movie theater, Roma is spellbinding. That's due to the control and precise depth of feeling that the long takes and wide shots often conjure as we attempt to absorb all the life and personal drama within these grandly recreated dioramas of 1970 in Mexico City.

There are so many exceedingly memorable images: a mad communal scrambling during a forest fire, a family trip to the beach, Cleo's boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) practicing martial arts in the nude, a trip to an astronaut movie (a nod to Gravity perhaps?). Etcetera...

Though there is a dramatic story arc, both for the family and for Cleo, Roma functions most superbly as deeply human vignettes of everyday life. As with Cuarón's international breakthrough Y Tu Mama Tambíen, the picture doubles as a political portrait of his home country, or in this case Mexico City specifically. It's Cuarón's best and most soulful film since that triumph (which was, perhaps not coincidentally, his last Spanish-language film) and as bravura a feat of 'how'd he do that?' technical virtuosity as his most acclaimed English language pictures Gravity and Children of Men. Every frame is a painting. Every deep bustling tableau is filled with humor, beauty, drama, and untold other stories that could have been their own movie. See it on the biggest screen you can find because the image-making is something else.

Alfonso Cuarón on set with Yalitza Aparacio

Oscar Chances: Across the board contender but will probably be most competitive in Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and within technical categories. 

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Reader Comments (17)

Best Actress maybe Nat.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Yes yes and yes. This movie is one of the most immersive experience, both visually and emotionally, I had in a movie theater my all life. Simply astonishing. Perfection and beauty on every level.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFerdi

I would like to be able to see it in a theater, but the distribution seems iffy.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Is it a sure thing to win the foreign category?

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTheBoyFromBrazil

The Boy From -- i'm not sure you can be a sure thing in the foreign category. they've had big surprises there in the past. But it will definitely be nominated and probably win.

Mark -- i know people are talking about that but I dont see how given the competition from major stars doing thrilling acclaimed work this year.

September 18, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

i just can't wait. do we know if it will be available to see in the theater as well? for people not in ny/la?

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

I really want to see this, but I refuse to see it via streaming if Netflix proves stingy on the theatrical release front. Hollywood may be overly resistant to change, but I most certainly share their hostility towards Netflix's long-term project of making streaming the main (if not only) platform for viewing movies. Democratize entertainment, sure - but in my book that means bringing the big-theater experience to MORE people, not fewer!

/off soapbox

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

So not a Ruth Negga then.It is seeming more likely GaGa is in it to win.Very exciting this year.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Do people ever get tired of whining about Netflix having small theatrical releases?

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Sounds great.

It's so sad to think that I will completely monopolize the foreign film conversation.

I was going to criticize Netflix limited theatrical releases, but I fear that the Twitter Police will find me and arrest me.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This needs to be seen on the big screen. Hopefully Netflix wakes up and realizes this.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

This needs to be seen on the big screen. Hopefully Netflix wakes up and realizes this.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I want to see this as I'm a fan of Alfonso Cuaron.

September 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

How's that high def B&W photography. Publicity for the film is really promoting it, but the reviews don't really go into the look of the film much.

September 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

Jess, Michael R., and Nathaniel: I agree that a potential Best Picture nominee needs to be on enough screens in cities where AMPAS members reside to get in front of their eyeballs to appreciate it; I particularly agree with Nathaniel and Michael R that this will not do as well on screeners as it needs to in order to generate nomination support. Jess, what little I have heard about AMPAS reaction to the typical theatrical release pattern adopted by Nexflix suggests that the AMPAS prejudice against it is very real, as it cuts into the income of their members, especially active ones.

October 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

just saw this (on Netflix, all you haters). it was terrific.

December 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteranonny

I hate every single minute of it!

December 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterStjeans

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