Ever since “Roma” debuted at the Venice International Film Festival in August, many critics have crowned it the best film of 2018. While some may disagree, it would be no surprise if “Roma” is taught in film schools decades from now, canonized alongside other realist classics such as “The 400 Blows.” Even in the present, “Roma” has so much to teach us about society’s treatment of indigenous women and about how to embrace the most marginalized among us as nothing less than family.
While writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has said “Roma” was entirely based on his childhood memories of Mexico City in 1971, he relegates himself to the film’s periphery. Instead, Cuarón dedicates “Roma” to his family’s maid, Libo Rodriguez, who is represented and fictionalized as Cleo. She is played by Yalitza Aparicio, whose previous lack of professional acting experience doesn’t prevent her from giving the single best performance of the year.
Cleo is a fixture in the family she works for, highly regarded by matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira). Yet, the distinction between family and employer is one that Cleo is all too aware of; she may be adored by wizened youngster Pepe (Marco Graf) but his grandmother (Verónica García) doesn’t even know Cleo’s middle name or date of birth. One wonders if Cuarón, as a man of privilege, is the right person to tell Cleo’s story and, consequently, that of many indigenous domestic workers.
It’s a topic worth discussing and, admittedly, one that I lack the perspective to arbitrate on. And while the film’s narrative authenticity may be up for debate, “Roma” undoubtedly wears its heritage on its sleeve, featuring credits written in Spanish and sometimes featuring dialogue in Mixtec.
It is undeniable that “Roma” has its heart in the right place. It is a loving tribute to the women who raised Cuarón, and it’s no accident that many of the film’s male characters are either wholly toxic or, at worst, terrifyingly violent. But as much as the film navigates through gut-wrenching emotional lows, it never strays far from being a warmly constructed concretization of memory.
Indeed, to watch “Roma” is to become completely immersed in the life of another. The film’s black-and-white visuals are somehow far crisper than other 2018 films shot in color, bursting with an illustrative quality that proves utterly unique in its capacity for mimesis. Cuarón lets us feel the soft cushion of sand beneath one’s feet, hear the distant drone of an airplane above and, most affectingly, know the power of unshakeable bonds.
This is all accomplished through a bravura display of technical mastery, which should come as no surprise from the director of “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Children of Men” and “Gravity.” For “Roma,” Cuarón takes on the additional role of cinematographer — his first director of photography credit on a feature film — and he grounds the film in long tracking shots and simple, graceful pans.
The result is an aesthetic firmly rooted in objectivity, which allows us to appreciate each painstakingly assembled shot. The width afforded by the film’s 65mm format allows the mise-en-scène to brim with exquisite detail — a poster in the background anticipates political turmoil, while production design bolsters the film’s commentary on class. In this sense, “Roma” foregrounds the intimacy of Cleo’s story, but Cuarón parallels it with the expansive history of an entire country.
We’re further immersed in Cleo’s world through the film’s meticulous sound design and mixing. Sound travels in such a way that it directs and informs our gaze, resulting in a synesthesia of sorts — we see the sounds of Mexico City as much as we hear it.
With this in mind, much has been said about “Roma’s” limited theatrical release, a rarity for Netflix, its distributor. For any viewer with the means to see “Roma” theatrically, it will be well worth it, given the intricacies of the film’s sound mixing. Still, no matter how one sees it, “Roma” is so genuine in its emotions and so immersive in its construction that it will captivate any viewer.
One of the film’s earlier scenes best summarizes its ethos — Cleo and Pepe lie down on a rooftop, soaking up the sun in peaceful repose. And while the film can be harrowing to watch at times, ultimately, we’re invited to do the same.
“Roma” is currently playing at Shattuck Cinemas, in addition to being available for streaming on Netflix.
Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].