Roma is Academy Award-winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s (Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También) childhood autobiography told through the eyes of a maid who holds her employer’s family together in early 1970s Mexico City.
From the name, many people think this is a movie about the Romani (gypsy) people, but Roma is actually Mexico City’s old, but now hip Colonia Roma neighborhood. The story is told in Spanish and Mixtec, one of Mexico’s many Indigenous languages.
From the opening scene of water coursing over tiles being washed, you immediately know you are watching a master visual poet. But why does wave after wave of water keep flushing over the tiles? Surely they must be clean already. The master is setting up the film’s ending where an equally long shot of waves of water wash the pain out of Cleo’s soul.
While wondering why such a long shot of waves of water, without consciously noticing, you start noticing the sounds of the water and the household, the neighborhood and even the sky.
The movie’s soundscape is one of its delights. It’s one of the reasons you must see Roma in the cinema, not only on Netflix. You need to have some space to hear the chirping birds, barking dogs and cars passing. Then an airplane passes overhead reflected in the water. It’s a theme he keeps repeating.
But the shot is not over, he pans up and you meet the main character, Cleo the family maid who speaks Spanish and Mixtec. Her stoic performance is wonderful.
This is another delight of the movie. Cuarón is a master of the long shot. His street pans are marvelous. The choreography is serious. They are like Rube Goldberg machines (complex machines that do improbable things). You want to see everything, to find all the Waldos in a Where’s Waldo book, but you can barely keep up with everything that is going on.
It’s as if Cuarón reshot the never-ending Spielbergian tension of his last film, the Academy Award winning Gravity, in a family context in the Mexico City of fifty years ago.
The movie gives you the feeling of having spent a long day at a theme park. There are so many things to see and so many fantastic things rush past you quickly that you can barely take them in.
It’s like having two minutes to assemble a 1000-piece puzzle, but Cuarón does all the work for you and there it is like magic. But there is immediately another visual puzzle.
I’ve seen a lot of movies this year and Roma isn’t just the best foreign-language film, it’s the best picture. The imagery and soundscape are so dense that it’s ten best pictures in one. You can watch this movie over and over again and still not see it all.
In Roma, Shit Happens, but it’s Beautiful and Life Goes On
Cleo is a maid for Antonio, Sofia and their four children. Antonio abandons the family and Sofia tries to hold things together without telling the children that their father has left.
Cleo gets pregnant from her boyfriend Fermín who abandons her in the movie theater right after she tells him.
Some time later while shopping for a crib, a student street protest turns violent. A man runs into the furniture store and is shot in front of everyone. Then Cleo sees Fremín holding a gun and her water breaks. A trip to the hospital stalled by endless traffic from the unrest ends with the sorrow of a stillborn baby.
The family spends New Year’s at a friend’s country house. There are many surreal moments there and throughout the film. Mexico doesn’t have to try to be surreal. A room filled with the preserved heads of all the dogs who ever lived at the house is one of the movie’s lighter moments. But disaster is never far away. New Year’s fireworks set the woods on fire and all the guests have to try to put out the flames with buckets of water.
Sofia takes the family to vacation at the beach. There she tells the children that their father has left and is collecting his things from the house while they are away.
At the beach two of the children are almost swept away by the current, but Sofia saves them even though she herself cannot swim. The deep rumble of the crashing surf practically turns your stomach in the surf. Have you ever found yourself tumbling head over heels in the waves, wondering if you’ll make it up for your last gasp of air? Cuarón gives you that feeling.
Happy to be alive, the family piles onto Sofia on the beach as she her sorrow pours out because she didn’t really want the baby that she lost.
The family returns home to find it in disarray, after their father has taken his things, but they rearrange and life goes on.
This seems to be the core message of Roma, that life is chaotic and beautiful at the same time if you will slow down long enough to notice. Shit happens, but life keeps moving. The days keep washing over you and no matter what sorrows you must eat, you will be okay.
In a way, Cuarón also seems to be saying that it is the least privileged among us who are the glue of family and society. Those of us who are so disparaged by the beast in Washington D.C. are the very people who make New York City and our American society work.
Roma Film Festivals
Roma premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy on August 30, 2018 where it won a Venice Golden Lion.
It premiered in the U.S. at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018.
The film also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (North America) , San Sebastián International Film Festival (Spain), and New York Film Festival.
Roma opened in Los Angeles and New York City on November 21, 2018. The movie then moves to it’s producer, Netflix.
Critics love Roma. Time Magazine called it the best film of 2018. It is nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. It is also Mexico’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Cuarón wrote, directed and shot the film himself.
Most of the major film awards are in English. It’s a shame that Roma is considered a foreign-language film because it is without a doubt, the best movie of 2018.
Golden Lion ~ Venice International Film Festival
Academy Award Nominee ~ Best Foreign-Language Film
Golden Globes ~ Best Director, Best Foreign- Language Film
New York Critics Circle ~ Best Picture