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Mexico/USA 2018
Directed by
Alfonso Cuaron
135 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Roma (2018)

Synopsis: A year in the lives of a well-to-do middle-class family and their beloved house-keeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Alfonso Cuarón’s film is rather like looking at the family album of people you know nothing about. The images record the ghost-like traces of lives lived but they are of necessity devoid of the resonance of memory.  In this case not only are we looking at Cuarón’s album but it Is the director who is turning the pages. The result is a remarkable portrait in which the past is re-created with loving detail, socio-historical awareness and unquestionable visual flair but one in which we also feel captive to the director’s will (in much the same way that we do with the very different films of Yorgos Lanthimos).

The essence of writer-director Cuarón's achievement with Roma (which refers not to the Italian capital but to a suburb of Mexico City)  is announced in the opening title shot of a passenger plane flying overhead reflected in a pool of water on a tiled floor. It is at once brilliantly executed, allusive and very long.  Shot in lustrous black and white by Cuarón, after his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was unable to join the project, visually the film has many such bravura moments while the recreation of Mexico City of the director’s youth is marvellous not just in the quality of the production design but in capturing the character of its mixed race, class-bound and politically-repressive society.

All this, however, is really the backdrop to the story of Cleo, Cuarón's version of Libo the real life housemaid (the film is dedicated to her) of indigenous descent who was so important to his upbringing. Her mistress’s stressed outbursts notwithstanding, Cleo is effectively a beloved member of the family (she lives upstairs at the back of the house) and as her mistress faces a disintegrating marriage, also its mainstay.  Beyond thisn Cuarón's quietist intention is evidently to embody the larger rhythms of life and the cycle of birth and death  (the closing credits end with a mantra from the main Hindu text, the Upanishads: "Shantih Shantih Shantih").

This of course means facing the mundane and this is where the film will find resistance with some viewers as Cuarón gives us repeated slow pans around the empty house as Cleo carries out her duties and extended tracking shots along busy streets when she goes out. There’s an over-preoccupation with the prodigious bowel movements of the family dog (which on the other hand to which no-one pays any attention). More significantly, other than Cleo, no character is developed beyond theit typological function. The mother (Marina de Tavira) receives some small attention, the father is represented largely metaphorically by an over-sized American car and the kids are barely differentiated. And even though we do follow Cleo’s bitter-sweet  story as she is a simple, passive soul to whom things happen rather than are brought about by her (non-professional actor Aparicio, a primary school teacher in real life is perfect for the part) Cuarón keeps us largely at arm’s length to events. Which given that his film is a personal memoir makes sense but it leaves us too much at the mercy of his memory (how the family survived financially so comfortably is never explained).

There are some exceptions, as when Cleo confronts the father of her illegitimate baby, the delivery of same (here the prosthetics or the editing should have been better here), and what was for me the standout climactic sequence of the film when Cleo plunges into the pounding surf as two of the children are pulled out to sea, a sequence which chimes perfectly with that opening shot already referred to

Cuarón directed the 2013 Oscar-winner Gravity a film which impressed much more as visual spectacle than as human drama. Here he closes the gap and artistically Roma is the better film although some will say, despite its success in that respect, not so entertaining.




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