By Pat Mullen
Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma with a packed audience at TIFF, I couldn’t help but marvel and wonder if this was what it must have felt like to be among the audience to see Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura for the first time. This new black-and-white semi-autobiographical film from the groundbreaking director of Gravity, Children of Men, and Y tu mama también feels like a new kind of cinema. Roma is at once a classic and a contemporary masterpiece.
The classic element of Roma comes in Cuarón’s return to his past. Roma pays tribute to the women who raise us as Cuarón crafts a story that centres on a household much like the one he grew up in and looks at the two women who made him the man he is today. Cleo, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio (a schoolteacher by trade), is the live-in maid of a well-to-do middle class family. She cleans the house and looks after the children while the lady of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), tends to social functions and keeps an eye on her husband’s straying fidelity. As played by the soft-spoken and warm-hearted Aparicio, Cleo is a presence full of light and grace in Mrs. Sofia’s quiet, cavernous household.
Cuarón’s camera follows Cleo as she goes about her daily chores, like cleaning up the dog poop scattered around the house, and tidying the children’s rooms. As the camera watches Cleo, Roma masterfully observes space and time as the camera respects a clear axis in the household. There are public spaces and there are private spaces, and Cuarón restricts the viewpoint depending on the level of discretion required of each space. (Cleo can’t invite us into some rooms.) Scenes play out in real time as the camera watches Cleo go from room to room or tidy common areas. Like Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the story isn’t so much about what happens, but how it unfolds and how the audience experiences every second of the story, acutely aware that they’re in another world.
The busy frames of Roma are packed with elements of everyday life. Cuarón orchestrates a masterful range of background action that ranges from minor details like a daredevil shot from a cannon to major history-marking events like the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre. The latter event unfolds from afar as Cleo, months pregnant, watches the protests from a store window before action enters the drama space and puts her, her baby, and Mexico’s future in harm’s way. Aparicio’s natural performance keeps us intensely invested in Cleo’s story and the greater story that opened Cuarón’s eyes to the world around him.
Roma is very contemporary as the latest, and much-ballyhooed, production from streaming giant Netflix. The grand canvas on which Cuarón works demands that Roma be seen on the biggest screens one can find, and the meticulous sound design requires more layers and wattage than most home theatres (or laptops) can deliver. Anyone eager to watch Roma on a cellphone or tablet is going to be shortchanged by one of the cinematic events of the year.
Roma hits Netflix on December 14.