Five years after his Oscar-winning Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón returns with a decidedly different film in Roma. On a smaller—but no less effective—scale, Roma is a moving tribute to the female servant Cuarón grew up with during the early 1970s in the Mexico City suburb of Roma.
Cuarón, who claims 90 percent of the movie is based on his childhood memories, tells the story from the female servant’s point of view. Renamed Cleo and played by Yalitza Aparicio in an astonishing, heartbreaking performance, Cleo is the glue holding the family together as their philandering patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), abandons them.
The remaining family consists of four children, mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother Teresa (Verónica Garcia). They rely heavily upon Cleo, who responds with a dedicated, steadfast grace—no matter how tense the situation gets.
The situation worsens when Cleo becomes pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts-obsessed, criminally selfish man who should have the first letter of his name replaced with a “V.” Fermin is so despicable that he makes Antonio look like an absolute sweetheart.
So Cleo and Sofia are left alone. Sofia’s personal matters always happen in the background; we only get brief snippets of conversations and occurrences that allow Cleo and the family to know the father is not coming back. The abandonment of Cleo by Fermin, however, is handled in a far more blunt, and repeatedly awful, way.
Sofia has a few moments when she almost unravels, lashing out at her children and Cleo. She has a kind heart, but the pressure is almost too much to take, and it shows. On the contrary, Cleo goes through it all without becoming a burden on anyone. She carries her baby full-term, tending to the family’s children and supporting Sofia. Cleo rarely shares her personal feelings—but she does speak out in a few choice moments. Those moments are devastating.
The movie covers about a year in the life of the family, and it’s a slow build. Filmed in black and white, its every shot is a beautiful thing—which is amazing considering that Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer for the first time on a feature film.
Much of the movie happens in slow pans. It isn’t very wordy, and it adheres to a certain level of reality that could be taken as mundane at times. It’s daringly simple and somehow majestic at the same time. There are some grand-scale moments; a sequence depicting a violent student uprising is visceral and taut, while a near tragic-event on a beach is frighteningly real and fills the screen. Yet most of the movie is made up of little moments that string a life together—a dog hopping up on a dress, a kid asking for Twinkies, a car rubbing alongside the car port’s walls because it’s too damned wide, etc. Halfway into the movie, you’ll feel as if you’ve been living with this family.
Aparicio’s performance is truly remarkable. She’s in nearly every scene; she gives us one of the year’s most memorable characters—and somehow, this is the only IMDb credit she has. She will break your heart. When she tries to sit down for a second to watch a TV show, when she faces a troublesome birth on her own, when she’s yelled at for missing a few of her daily tasks … I repeat: Aparicio will break your heart.
Roma continues what it is turning out to be a breakthrough year for Netflix, which has given the movie a limited big-screen release before making it available for streaming. This and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers are proof that the service has become a giant purveyor of original cinema goodness.
Roma is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 14.