Roma (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón
Review by Zach Dennis
I’ll be upfront — we toss out the term “masterpiece” entirely too much. What is a masterpiece? It almost feels like referring to a piece of culture with that word should be as theoretically considered as telling someone that you love them...because in essence, that’s what you’re kind of doing there.
Excuse my rambling, but Roma, the latest film from Alfonso Cuarón, has been labeled this way multiple times since its debut at both Venice and here in Toronto, and while I’ll say I did find the film to be a splendid entry for Cuarón, and one that will surely have people talking long past 2018 and the awards circuit, I have trouble with labels.
Roma follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparico), a housekeeper for an upper middle class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s. The family’s patriarch is hardly seen, and assumed to be infedelius with that, and the majority of Cleo’s dealings with the family is between the wife and her children. Cleo has some interactions with the “outside world” — she sleeps with and spends some time with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), the friend of her friend’s boyfriend who she spends an afternoon and a bed with — but for the most part, she is isolated to the confines of this family’s home.
There is no denying the personal connection that Cuarón portrays and many other critics have remarked that it bears similarities to the work of Italian director Federico Fellini. I see the connection, but Roma seems much more in tune with the early work of Satyajit Ray or small elements of early Yasujiro Ozu in that it studies a person and their environment.
Over the course of the runtime, you live with Cleo and this family. You live their anxieties, their angers, their fears and their sadness. Hope is not offered too often and the juxtaposition between the homeowner, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and Cleo feels both distant but connected. It’s obvious that these characters come from different worlds — Cleo forced to work just to live and Sofía having a decent amount of financial security but having her personal life stripped apart — but Cuarón frames this more of a tale of the connection between women rather than a way to identify discrepancies in class.
It is scary to be Cleo and it is scary to be Sofía, but both are brave and tough and this quality is what Cuarón is trying to tell us. We’ve seen a lot of cinema that reflects on the struggle to survive by lower class workers, but there is this care with Cleo that Cuarón takes that makes it feel much more richer and rewarding rather than being some exercise in empathy.
Cuarón has established himself a bit today for his technical marvels and his ability to craft “movie magic” in the more modern sense with Gravity or Children of Men, but the subtlety of Roma and its technical feats may be his best achievement yet. Filmed in black-and-white with all camera work done by Cuarón himself, the film feels as personal and brave as the story, and while I struggle to just label it as a masterpiece, it does show there is still room for these stories and there is room to explore characters like this.
It’s unfortunate that this will play on Netflix as it is such a rich and beautiful film to watch on the big screen, but it is comforting to know that a large audience will be given the option to see this film and decide whether they want to make the leap to labelling it a masterpiece on their own.