By Jack Dignan
There’s an intimacy to be found in Alfonso Caurón’s Roma that I’ve never experienced in any other movie. The Mexican director’s eighth feature film moves away from the sci-fi/fantasy genre explored in his more recent filmography, one of which, Gravity, gets a nice little nod here, and instead, Caurón takes us back to 1970s Mexico in a semi-autobiographical picture set out to destroy the common thinking of “all Netflix original movies are bad.” It’s an encapsulation of life unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and it’s going to capture the hearts of every viewer when it hits Netflix this December.
Roma is very simple in terms of narrative. It’s not so much carried by the plot as it is by the themes and the characters. First time actor Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a woman brought in to take care of a middle class family as they deal with life and the ever-changing climate of the world. It’s a film of beauty and sensuality. Caurón’s quiet, somber screenplay moves at a slow pace, one that failed to grip me entirely from the get go, but once you click with this film the experience moves beyond words. You completely forget about your initial lack of investment because all that follows is a profound, moving tale of life’s beauty.
The choice to not give the screenplay to any of the cast or crew prior to the shoot proves to be a decision with powerful payoff. Roma flows as elegantly and effortlessly as the water which overlays the opening shot, or the waves that crash against the beach in the third act, or the planes we constantly see gliding overhead. Life is on a constant trajectory, but it’s one we can’t possibly see coming. Without knowing what’s ahead, these actors capture the “now” without fault. This is a movie about life and the people we share it with. It’s a testament to all its affection and its horror.
Caurón draws from a very real, personal place and results in what may be his greatest achievement to date. Not only does write, producer and direct, but Caurón serves as his own cinematographer, a last minute replacement after his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki dropped out. While Lubezki’s DNA is all over this film, it’s an achievement in its own right. The use of long shots are absolutely breathtaking, but none more so than a moment on a beach that’s soaked in fear and anchored by love. I’m still in awe. For the life of me, I can’t even imagine how they pulled it off.
He captures life in all of its raw, unbroken beauty, each frame etched with affection. Every set, every costume and every sound feels authentic, as if pulled straight out of the real world, and yet at the same time, there’s something about it that goes beyond “realistic.” It is, but it isn’t. It’s more than that. Roma is life at its finest, and not at all in a literal sense. These people are struggling, even if they deny it, but their fight for justice affected me deeply. It’s a touching sentiment to the ones we love, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cast member who was an actual actor prior to the making of this movie.
For the entire 135-minute runtime I was in absolute denial about Yalitza Aparicio never having acted before. Her performance feels like the work of a seasoned professional. The dedicated and deep internalization she brings to this role carries the entire film, and along the way it gives us one of the greatest performances of 2018. You feel every emotion, every heartbreak and every affectionate smile resonating deep within your heart. Sometimes all three are even felt at once. She’s the heart and soul of the film, and if awards season overlooks her performance I will be forever sad.
I cannot recommend this movie enough. You’re going to hear a lot of people talking about how this is a must see cinematic experience, and they’re not wrong. I loved watching this in the theatre, but the fact that an original, black and white, foreign language film from the work of a seasoned professional is getting any sort of wide release is a monumental achievement. How you experience this film doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you actually watch it, and Netflix has made that possible. Do not miss this, no matter what.
4 1/2 Stars
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