Should I Watch..? 'Roma' (2018)
What's the big deal?
Roma is a monochromatic drama film released in 2018 and was written and directed by Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón. Set mostly in Mexico City in 1970 and 1971, the film follows a nanny in the household of a middle-class family and the tumultuous events that occur. The film is a semi-autobiographical take on Cuarón's upbringing in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City during the politically charged atmosphere at the time. The film stars newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Nancy Garcia and Jorge Antonio Guerrero. Filmed mostly in Spanish, the movie was distributed through Netflix which caused it to be barred from the Cannes Film Festival as well as several cinema chains refusing to show the film while it was available for streaming. Nevertheless, the film scooped ten nominations at the 2019 Academy Awards (winning three) which, together with The Favourite, was the highest amount by any one film.
What's it about?
In the Colonia Roma area of Mexico in 1970, Cleo is a maid working in the household of Sofia and her husband Antonio, their four children and Sofia's mother Teresa. Together with her friend Adela, they cook the meals and clean the house as well as cleaning up after their dog and looking after the children. Sofia and Antonio's marriage has become strained due to frequent trips away as part of Antonio's job. When he announces that he must travel to Quebec, Sofia begs him not to go but he departs anyway.
Cleo begins seeing Fermin, the cousin of Adela's lover Ramon, who is a student of martial arts. When Cleo falls pregnant, Fermin struggles to accept the news while Cleo worries how this will affect her standing within the family. But as Sofia and Cleo begin to find their lives following similar paths, rising political tensions in Mexico threaten to boil over into violence...
Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutierrez
Marina de Tavira
Jorge Antonio Guerrero
Diego Cortina Autrey
Release Date (UK)
30th November, 2018
Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Leading Actress (Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (de Tavira), Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
What's to like?
My late wife and I would argue incessantly over the merits of Lost In Translation, a film that I enjoyed but she hated. I can imagine her reacting to Roma in a similar way. Instead of an exciting narrative, the film runs like a series of dream-like moments that the camera coldly observes without interaction. At first, I found this a little annoying as the camera endlessly pans over scenes with no emotion of judgment, like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I soon got it - the cinematography is meant to put a barrier between the audience and the scene because this is meant to feel like a memory, a snapshot of a time that ultimately changes the lives of everyone forever. It's also why it's in black-and-white, reinforcing the fact that it's already happened and is in the past.
As the heart of the film, Aparicio is a revelation - with no acting experience whatsoever, she is utterly compelling as Cleo who shoulders the responsibilities of the family with quiet grace and dignity in spite of her own problems. The film is helped by the fact that nearly all the cast are unknown beyond Mexico but de Tavira also delivers a superb performance as Sofia, whose snippets of conversation from the side-lines help to flesh out the story while Aparicio deals with her situation. Between the two of them, the story becomes enthralling and you find yourself willing the characters to succeed. I also really enjoyed the sense of noise and chaos outside the house with mariachi bands marching past, planes flying overhead and caged birds singing. With no score, the film is reliant on its sound effects and they bring the life to life with amazing success. The forest fire in particular is almost hypnotic to watch, its bright flames contrasting with the dark of the night while piercing crackles and the roar of the fire drown out the worried shouts of those fighting it.
- Before being cast, Aparicio had no idea who Cuarón was and had never seen any of his films. She had recently completed training in pre-school education and had no acting experience at all. Aparicio was must afraid of the sea scene because, like her character, she can't swim.
- The film is dedicated to Libo, the real-life maid who is the inspiration for the Cleo character. She is still a part of Cuarón's life and even appeared on screen in a cameo in Y Tu Mamá También in 2001.
- Professor Zovak, the martial-arts teacher and entertainer was based on a real person known as the Mexican Houdini. The role is played by pro wrestler Latin Lover who has appeared on the Mexican wrestling scene since 1992.
What's not to like?
The reason why I suspect my wife wouldn't enjoy this film is because, like Lost In Translation, the film is more about capturing a mood rather than events. Roma is a fairly basic kitchen-sink drama at its heart but due to the cast being so convincing and the film's documentary feel, you buy whole-heartedly into the story so you feel for these people going through tough times. I have rarely felt hatred for a character that I did for Fermin, the father of Cleo's baby. Just because the film doesn't have a traditional film-style narrative - or even the classic beginning, middle and end structure - doesn't mean it's any less interesting.
I'm dismissing criticism of the film for being distributed through Netflix because that is nothing to do with the film itself. If anything, it underscores the fact that Netflix is now a producer of real and genuine films instead of inane Adam Sandler comedies. I know plenty of viewers who will watch this and bemoan the lack of anything happened and yes, the film moves at a glacial pace. But this isn't some instant hit, this is something to savour like a fine Scotch or vintage wine. The pace is slow because it tells the story of one family over the course of a year so it's necessary. It's full of mood and symbolism and atmosphere instead of plot exposition. It treats its audience to a vivid recreation of a world many of us will be unfamiliar with. It's beautiful.
Should I watch it?
It won't appeal to everybody but Roma is a sumptuously crafted and utterly immersive dip into Alfonso Cuarón's own memories. With characters brought to life by its amazing cast and a wonderfully chaotic look at a chapter in Mexican history, the film is a deep and engaging watch that rewards patient viewers. But a word of warning: if you're not one for subtlety in a film then don't bother. This is all about atmosphere and mood instead of action. But frankly, I really don't mind.
Great For: Spanish-speaking viewers, Cuarón's award cabinet which will be getting even more crowded, Aparicio's prospects as an actress
Not So Great For: viewers at Cannes who missed it, people dismissive of Netflix films, black-and-white snobs
What else should I watch?
Alfonso Cuarón has enjoyed an enviable career in film-making with a variety of movies - big budget blockbusters like Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, visionary sci-fi thrillers like Gravity and more introspective efforts like Y Tu Mama Tambien. But I feel Roma tops them all - it's easily his most personal picture to date and more engrossing than Y Tu Mama Tambien. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess but I, for one, am looking forward to whatever he produces.
The awards season in Hollywood rarely produces surprises and sure enough, the nominations revealed that their long-standing appreciation of costume dramas remains largely intact. The Favourite and Mary Queen Of Scots secured plenty of nominations for themselves but there are also hints that things may be changing given recent criticism of the awards. Popular films like Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody also secured a decent number of nods while Spike Lee also achieved some long-deserved recognition for his BlacKkKlansman. We'll find out soon enough if this really is a change for the Academy and it's members.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox