Sometimes, the best cinematic stories are the simplest ones. They don’t have to have a moment that defines the movie that will be remembered for years to come. And they don’t necessarily have to have a character that will be shown as cinema’s most memorable ever. Sometimes, cinematic stories are as ordinary as the lives most of us live. However, at the same time, they can be just as rich and extraordinary as our own. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest feature is a simplistic masterclass in storytelling. It’s a personal story about love, courage, hope, change, and home. This is Roma.
Set in the early 1970s, the film is a semi-autobiographical take on director Alfonso Cuarón’s upbringing in Mexico City, and follows the life of a live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family. The title refers to the Colonia Roma district of the city.
Roma drops us in the middle of the life of a housekeeper to a family that has had its share of problems, ranging from the children to the parents of these little ones. Showing us events that span the course of almost a year, Cuarón immerses the audience in this black-and-white world and it’s as if we’re a part of it as well, like passengers along for the ride. There’s almost no score in this movie, and there are more silent moments than you possibly could expect. But those moments and exclusions allow the movie to breath without interruption. It’s as intimate a movie as you’ll ever see, where moments, both high and low, will strike you without notice; moments that will remind you of how fragile life is. Every moment unravels slowly but is beautifully shown, whether wondrous or saddening; and some of these moments will stay with you long after the movie is over.
The cast of Roma is entirely unknown but is led by two women who bring graceful performances to the screen. First and foremost is Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, the housekeeper whose life is flipped upside down once she discovers she’s pregnant. While Cleo may be quiet, she is also brave and resilient as she traverses Mexico City and other areas the movie takes us. The other female lead (though not nearly as big as Yalitza’s) is Marina de Tavira, who plays Sofia, the wife of the household where Cleo works. Dealing with a troubled relationship with her husband, Antonio (played by Fernando Grediagra), Sofia tries to keep things afloat while overseeing the big house they live in while Antonio is gone ‘working.’ The trials both women go through in Roma are ones that many women the world over all can relate to. Each performance is arguably among the best by an actress that audiences will see on screen this year.
Part of what keeps audiences invested in Roma is the beautiful cinematography from Cuarón (yes, he also shot this movie in addition to directing it), which almost acts like a character itself. Many shots in Roma go on without interruption, as audiences take in the details presented to them in black and white. While we rarely see movies in black and white these days, it works to the advantage here, given the story and subject matter. Shots in the main house, as well as tracking shots throughout various regions, are filled with depth that make us want to explore the areas the main characters take us in the movie. A number of scenes benefit from the contrast and lighting by keeping things simply black and white; a few of them come off as some of the most striking pieces of imagery audiences will see in a movie this year. A fire in the woods that starts in the middle of the night; a riot in the streets while one of the main characters is getting ready for a big moment in their life; a scene on the beach where a family is getting away from the city life; an earthquake with harrowing results unrelated to the event. All of these are among the most memorable scenes in a movie in years.
Movies like Roma do not come around often. Stories this personal or affecting require patience and understanding. Roma is now available on Netflix, but if it one of the 600 theaters showing it is near you, then it’s a must-see on the big screen. Cuarón, currently one of the best filmmakers in the industry, has delivered a heartening masterpiece about how life can be both cruel and rewarding. It’s an odyssey that’s deeply moving by showing us how gentle humanity is and how loving it can be. It’s a portrait that’s both mesmerizing and simplistic in execution. It’s quite simply the year’s best movie.