Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is one of those films that doesn’t lend itself very well to the festival experience, as its fast-paced deadlines and jam-packed screening days are often more based around that “first thought, best thought” type of reaction than the kind of analysis that comes with sitting with a film (basically, I find myself wishing I could check it out just one more time before publishing this review, but them’s the breaks). Make no mistake, however, Cuaron has made something special with this film, his first since Gravity back in 2013, and, shockingly enough, it’s perhaps his most ambitious. It’s an impressively dense and layered “tribute to the Mexico City of his youth,” as Curaon once said, as well as an affectionate portrait of the women whose effect on his life shaped the person that he is today. He has, apparently, done right by them.
Our point of entry into Cuaron’s Mexico City (circa 1970) is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid working for a wealthier family in a relatively nice neighborhood in the city. The first segment of the film pretty much describes a typical day in her life: Tending after the children, preparing meals, doing laundry on the roof, scrubbing the floors, and heading to bed, which just so happens to be located on the same property as where she works. She is a live-in servant, but she’s given a great deal of freedom. She meets and has a fling with a young man that she knows, a friend of her cousin’s partner, and the pairing accidentally results in a pregnancy, which the young man wants no part of. Her employers, with whose children she is beloved, decide to support her no matter the cost, even as they endure their own marital struggles. From then on, we see her progress through her term, as the sociopolitical landscape changes drastically around her.
Though Aparicio is easily Roma’s standout, communicating her predicament with a naturalist grace and truth, the entire ensemble is well-worth paying attention to, even down to the smallest extra. Every character in the film is given enough color and shading that you could theorize an entire other film being made about their experience. each, perhaps, in a different genre. This is the key to his Mexico City being so vibrant and alive — it’s full of people, not props, and it’s the kind of empathy one is only able to learn by being so fucking close to the moment that one could capture it in amber. And, though I haven’t read any pieces about the accuracy of the film (and I’m sure liberties were taken with it), it feels true, simply because it’s so fully realized. From the class disparities of the day, to the political struggles of that moment, to the ways people handle grief and joy, it’s vibrantly alive.
And then there’s that lush, gorgeous black-and-white 65mm cinematography, shot by Cuaron himself, having learned all he needs to from the murderer’s row of visual minds that lensed his prior output. The Fellini influence is obvious, but the specificity of the setting and how he handles certain moments are of the director’s own design, which makes it feel more than just simple homage. Case in point, there is a shot so complex at the end of this film that it actually boggles the mind how Cuaron and the crew made it work, a bravura piece of filmmaking that only calls attention to itself once you notice it. Let’s put it even plainer: this is a movie that so deserves to be seen in a theater in the largest format possible that Netflix, the film’s production company and distributor, is giving it a fucking theatrical release.
As it stands, Roma is a dramatic achievement for Cuaron, one only made possible by the skills he’d honed over his almost thirty-year career, of which there are plenty of references to, visual and otherwise, sprinkled throughout. It’s also the best proof-positive that Netflix’s “throw money at big directors” strategy may not simply lead to overly indulgent onanism.
While it might not be as close to my heart as something like Children of Men, which roughed up my perceptions about what science-fiction filmmaking could be as a sixteen year-old like they owed it money, it’s hard not to see why so many consider it to be his very best film, and I’m confident that you may think so as well. There’ll be plenty to write about Roma in the days to come aside from this brief reaction, but I’m so excited for you to get to see this film: It’s truly astonishing.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.