Roma is Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical masterpiece.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has an impressive filmography, including Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity, all masterfully executed. However, Cuarón’s autobiographical new work Roma is his masterpiece for its authoritative presentation of his upper-middle class Mexican upbringing and, especially, his enduring affection for his nanny Libo, called Cleo in the film, from whose perspective his family’s life unfolds.
Over a momentous year in the early 1970s, personal and political crises impact the community as well as the central characters: affairs, separation, divorce, pregnancy, betrayal and violent street protests. Cuarón communicates this exquisitely, poignantly, thoughtfully. Memory is the touchstone of the loosely organized narrative, infused with subtle symbolism from Cleo’s opening scene mopping the narrow, claustrophobic car garage to the return of the water motif in the late, terrifying ocean scene.
Cuarón himself shot Roma in gorgeous black-and-white with long takes and a flowing camera always at the exact right place to reveal interaction. His minimal use of close-ups allows events to unfold realistically without intrusive editing guiding us toward predetermined emotional conclusions. Along with Cleo, we watch and react to this family. At Telluride (where I first saw Roma), Cuarón said he did not think of Libo as a surrogate but his real mother more than his biological one. After all, who constitutes our family? And who is there for us?
Writer and co-editor as well as director, this is more than Cuarón’s experiences. Percolating for over ten years in Cuarón’s mind, it’s his very personal exploration of the devotion of the family’s maid juxtaposed with events from her periodically tumultuous world, one very different economically and emotionally from his own. The title Roma identifies the Mexican City neighborhood where he grew up, but his tribute, as he has said, to the women who mattered in his life reaches far beyond the particulars of this fond remembrance.
In her first film, from Oaxaca, Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo guides and dominates, an indigenous housekeeper who said at Telluride that she was so proud to hear her native language used in the film. Roma is, hands down, in the top cinematic tier. In Spanish and some Mixtec with English subtitles.