Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who directed one of my favorite films–CHILDREN OF MEN–ROMA (Netflix) is about a family living in the upper-class Colonia Roma area of Mexico City in 1970-71. It’s a surprisingly powerful and compelling film in which the story and visuals work together almost flawlessly.
First, the story, which focuses on Cleo (played in a wonderfully understated way by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous live-in maid. She spends her days cleaning and taking care of the family’s four children, in many ways being a more active parent than the parents themselves. When she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, she sees even worse security and grinding poverty ahead. Meanwhile, the family is in trouble as the father’s relationship with the family is becoming increasingly strained. It all culminates in a message of redemption and endurance against adversity.
It’s otherwise hard to describe the plot of the film, as there isn’t much of one. Partly autobiographical for Cuarón, the story rolls out as cinema verite. Things just happen, and the story just ends (or continues without us), though there’s plenty going on thematically if you want to think about it. This is one of the things I really like about ROMA, which is how it treats the viewer like a functioning adult. It doesn’t tell you what to feel, though you may feel plenty while watching it. There’s a lot going on in the subtext of the film, whether it’s the Corpus Christi massacre by paramilitaries during the Dirty War, or the common people struggling with the rich over land rights.
The second thing that really works about this film is the amazing cinematography. The film is shot in black and white, with plenty of wide angle shots, including long, calmly panning shots following a character through a busy street or even the ocean. As with CHILDREN OF MEN, Cuarón shows off how good he is at the visual set piece with ROMA, which involved the construction of vast sets. The result is stunning directorial control and a high-brow art house look and feel to the movie though without any of the usual tedium that goes with it. There’s always something going on on screen to focus on, something from real life to muse on.
When I first saw the trailer for this, I was surprised how much acclaim it had gotten, including multiple awards and nominations. It just looked a chore to watch, and hard to grasp what it was about. I’m glad I finally watched it, as it was very good, showing what can be done with a modest budget (just $4.4 million), characters we care about, social realism, and artistic cinematography.