Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" was shot on 65mm, it is comprised of a series of richly detailed episodic moments, always lensed in deep-focus, in which we are asked to glance around and look for carefully detailed signs of life, these moments are meant to string the film together and pack a wallop by the very final frame.
The film starts off with a slow-burning depiction of a Mexican family, based on Cuaron's own childhood in Mexico, that have to deal with the sudden departure of the patriarch. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a renowned doctor, who tells his family that he's going on a trip to Canada but eventually doesn't return. A mistress is hinted at, and soon thereafter the children have to deal with being fatherless, and mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) without a husband. In a later scene of astonishing simplicity, we catch a glimpse of Antonio with his mistress, the moment passes by in the blink of an eye but the effect it has on the viewer is immediate.
This is all seen through the pertinent eyes of the indigenous maid, Cleo (remarkable newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who turns out to be more of a matriarchal figure than the children's own mother. Their adoration for her is deeply felt -- she tells them she loves them, tucks them in at night and even cuddles with them as they watch late-night television, that is until Sofia asks for me tea and Cleo goes back to work.
The film builds up the drama and tension until its harrowing final hour arrives, it slowly settles us into a story that becomes about a woman grappling with her own independence. When Cleo unexpectedly becomes pregnant she decides to tell the father, an eccentric martial artist, as they are watching a movie at the cinema, he tells her he's going to the bathroom, but he never comes back. The look on her face as she exits the theater alone is heartbreaking.
This starts off Cleo's struggle to maintain both her own dignity and the care of the children, whom she'd rather care for than have to bear a child of her own. Much later in the film, when her water breaks, Cleo's trip to the hospital becomes one of the most astonishingly heartbreaking scenes you will ever see in a movie this year.
Throughout his film, Cuaron continuously turns his ever-watchful eye on the importance of water and its connection to both life and death. No coincidence then that the film's first, masterfully conceived frame, has the simple imagery of soapy fluid washing away on the pavement.
Cuaron is his own director of photography here, as frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezski had to exit production due to the never-ending work he does with Terrence Malick, but the black and white images from Cuaron envelop you into a Mexico changing at every second. Using mostly wide shots, and unhurried long takes, Cuaron proves to be a master of the minimalist, recalling the great current cinema of Lucrecia Martel.
Social unrest can be felt all around the film's 135 minutes, and there are scenes that stay etched in your memory; that is what "Roma" is about, memory. It's not necessarily driven by plot as much as by immaculately detailed moments, whether it'd be an incredible reenactmment of the 1971 Corpus Christi riots, pulse-pounding waves threatening children at sea, an almost surreal martial arts training exercise, an earthquake in a hospital with rubble landing atop a baby’s bin, actual human cannonballs at a street festival, a running dolly shot of exhilarating simplicity featuring Cleo and Adela just running, a Christmas party turning into a conga line...I could go on and on about the indelibly minimalist but powerfully resonant visuals on display in "Roma."
However, this is also Aparicio's movie, with no training in the art of acting, but actually a preschool teacher “discovered” in the southern state of Oaxaca, the actress is the beating, throbbing heart of Cuaron’s film.
This is an immensely challenging film, and unfortunately, the director's meditative approach will no doubt be met with resistance by the Netflix crowd looking for escapism rather than artful resonance. Cuaron, whose very best work ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," and "Children of Men") defined the last decade of cinema, refuses to adhere to any conventions. He's made a bold, beautiful work of art that will stand the test of time. [A]