‘Roma’ film review: A stunning piece of personal cinema

Close the curtains. Set your phones to airplane mode. Get your drinks in order. Then settle in for Alfonso Cuarón’s monochrome Mexican masterpiece on Netflix because Roma demands and deserves your full, undivided attention. Even the two-minute trailer is more gripping and beguiling than most movies released this year. 

This black-and-white film about the life of a housekeeper in early 1970s Mexico City is a labour of love for Cuarón. The director of Gravity, Children of Men, the third Harry Potter film and Y Tu Mamá También wrote, directed, edited, and produced Roma, and based the story on his own family home and the woman who helped to raise him. It shows. From the tracking shot of the two maids, Cleo and Adela, running through the city, to the cacophony of street sellers, marching bands and student protesters, Cuarón has brought the memories of his childhood to life on screen. But it’s not pure naïve nostalgia – his camera always knows where to look to get to the awkward, heartbreaking, crunchy bits of life.

With Roma, the filmmaker has taken an “intimate” “women’s story” about “female concerns”, like chores and children, and then consciously and expertly made it epic and consequential, tying it into the fabric of what was going on in Mexico City at the time. This is a great director, at the top of his game, pouring all this passion into the story of a regular woman who worked for his family. Her story mattered to him so he makes it matter to us.

Cuarón chooses to show not tell throughout, especially when it comes to the grace and resilience of the central character Cleo, played wonderfully by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio. In fact, the whole film is full of visual wit and layers of imagery, some bold in their simplicity or repetition and instantly obvious, others that will become clearer with time or a rewatch. One of the core messages of the film is conveyed not by a grand monologue but by a simple line, a word of advice uttered to Cleo by a drunk, despondent Sofia (the mother of the household, played by Marina de Tavira).

Roma is an intense film that will make you want to imbibe, inhale, and ingest it, and leave you needing to reacclimate to the real world. It’s a stunning piece about class and compassion, family and tedium, solidarity and denial, and it’s a must-see piece of personal cinema from a film great.

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