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On Netflix: ROMA (2018)

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ROMA
(US/Mexico - 2018)

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Carlos Peralta, Diego Cortina Autrey, Daniela Demisa, Marco Graf, Nancy Garcia, Veronica Garcia, Andy Cortes, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero Martinez, Jose Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Victor Resendez "Latin Lover," Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis Lopez Gomez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama, Enoc Leano, Nicolas Perez Taylor Felix, Kjartan Halvorsen. (R, 135 mins)

The Netflix Original film ROMA, Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron's first directing effort since 2013's Oscar-winning GRAVITY (he produced his son Jonas' little-seen thriller DESIERTO in the interim), is a personal and deeply moving drama that incorporates pivotal memories from his childhood that shaped him as a person and as a filmmaker. One of the so-called "Three Amigos" along with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Inarritu, visionary Mexican filmmakers who have earned a plethora of acclaim and accolades at home and in Hollywood going back to the 1990s, Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer on ROMA, shooting in digital 65mm and black-and-white, the camera constantly panning and swiveling slowly, the director conducting a master class in shot composition and movement. Known for long takes--sometimes with editing trickery--in GRAVITY and 2006's CHILDREN OF MEN, Cuaron resorts to those techniques throughout, but they don't so much stand out as technical marvels as much as they hypnotically lull you into the immersive world being depicted. And the CGI recreation of 1970-71 Mexico City is seamless and undetectable, and among other things, let ROMA serve as the last word on how CGI should be done.






Though the title refers to the film's setting in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, ROMA borrows its title from a likewise semi-autobiographical 1972 Federico Fellini film, and its style is a throwback to the great works of Italian neorealism, where Fellini first made his name as a writer, along with directors like Roberto Rossellini (Fellini wrote his ROME, OPEN CITY and PAISAN) and Vittorio De Sica (BICYCLE THIEVES, UMBERTO D.). ROMA centers on Cleo (a debuting Yalitza Aparicio), one of two young, live-in Mixtec housekeepers for the upper-middle class family of doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his teacher wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira). There's also four children--Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demisa), Tono (Diego Cortina Autrey), and Paco (Carlos Peralta)--plus Sofia's mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia), and dog Borras, whose piles of shit provide some of the occasional sight gags that take place in the extremely narrow driveway. The second housekeeper is Adela (Nancy Garcia), but it's Cleo, a character based on Libo, a live-in nanny from Cuaron's childhood home who frequently served as a mother figure, protector, and role model, who has a vital role in the family's lives. She dutifully does her endless work around the house, but when the family watches TV, she takes a quick break, has a seat, and is embraced by the kids. Cleo and Adela get occasional leisure time to see their boyfriends, but when Cleo tells aspiring martial-artist Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero Martinez) that she's pregnant, he abruptly abandons her at a movie theater, excusing himself to use the restroom and never returning. Ashamed to inform Sofia of her predicament, she's surprised to find an unexpected support system from Sofia ("Of course not!" Sofia responds when Cleo asks if she's going to be fired), as she has been quietly holding the family together while Antonio is ostensibly on multiple business trips to Quebec, when in fact, he's walked out on the family and left Sofia for a younger woman.


The winner of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice International Film Festival, ROMA is a film about many things--family ties, strong women forced to deal with the decisions of selfish, irresponsible men, a changing Mexico City in a time of social and political upheaval (student protests always seem to be heard in the distance but remain largely unseen until a riot breaks out in one harrowing sequence where Cleo and Teresa go shopping for a crib), and the influence of cinema and its importance to Cuaron. Two of ROMA's more gut-wrenching moments, both turning points in the narrative, take place inside and outside of a cinema, one showing the big-budget 1969 film MAROONED, one of Cuaron's inspirations for GRAVITY. Cleo is put through the wringer here, especially in a devastating hospital sequence that Cuaron does in one long take, Cleo's face in the foreground and something horribly traumatic happening in the background. It's one of the few instances where Cuaron comes close to focusing on a character's face, as much of the film is an almost panoramic exercise where multiple things are going on in any given shot (are those ducks mating in the corner of one shot? Yep). The more this goes on, the more intimate it becomes as we grow so familiar with the surroundings that it very gradually pulls you into its world, making the viewer as much of a part of it as the characters. It's an unusual approach that takes time but the payoff is worth the effort. After an hour or so of observing the daily routines of this household and its occupants, we come to know them so well that the coming dramatic developments have an unexpected impact, and nowhere is this more emotionally overwhelming than in the finale, and I'm not gonna lie--I was a wreck at the end of that beach sequence. Much of ROMA's success comes from the instinctive, intuitive performance of Aparicio, a schoolteacher who's never acted before (her profession likely explains her wholly natural rapport with the children). She's matched by de Tavira, a well-known star of Mexican telenovelas whose support of her novice co-star parallels her character's support of her employee. ROMA's power really cannot be understated. It's a stunning technical achievement, but also a profound work of warmth, compassion, and humanity that shows a filmmaker in every way mastering his craft. Cuaron has knocked them out of the park before, but ROMA firmly establishes him as one of the greats. The best film of 2018 so far.



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