It’s a special thing to realize you’re witnessing one of the greatest filmmakers in history working at the top of his game. That’s the case with ROMA, the eighth feature directorial effort from Alfonso Cuarón and the first since he won the Best Director Oscar for his space-set thriller Gravity. This is a very different film—it’s in Spanish, it’s set in 1970s Mexico, and it’s presented in black and white—but Cuarón’s mastery as a filmmaker has never been so potent. ROMA is an epically intimate chronicle of family and change, as told through the eyes of a domestic worker. It builds, moment by moment, with Cuarón meticulously crafting every single beat until the film swells and knocks you down like a wave. This is impeccable filmmaking on a grand scale.
Cuarón has said that 90% of ROMA is pulled directly from his childhood, inspired by the events surrounding his parents’ divorce, so right away it’s clear this is a very personal story (he also wrote the screenplay). The film opens in 1970 and revolves around a fairly well to do family living in Mexico City. They have two live-in domestic workers, and the bulk of the story is seen through the eyes of one of them, Cleo, played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio in an absolutely astounding performance. The patriarch of the family is a doctor, but he appears to be absent quite a bit, and even at the beginning of the film it’s clear the relationship between the parents is strained.
It’s also clear that Cleo is essentially raising the children. She slowly and calmly wakes each one of them up every day, helps them get dressed, fixes their breakfast, and makes sure they get to school on time. The mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), isn’t absent or neglectful, but her marriage is falling apart—she’s got a lot on her mind.
That’s about as far as I’d like to go in describing the plot of the film, as I think it’s a story that’s best experienced beat-by-beat as cold as possible—part of the point of ROMA is that you’re witnessing the everyday life of this family in sequence. The film plays out in realistic fashion, with events bumping up against each other, each one shaping and molding the lives and emotions of the family, and especially Cleo. It’s also no coincidence that the film takes place against the backdrop of political upheaval in Mexico, as the Corpus Christie massacre is depicted in absolutely stunning and gut-wrenching fashion.
Visually, you’ve never seen a film quite like ROMA. From the long, patient opening credits to a particularly jaw-dropping scene in the third act, this is the work of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it. Cuarón serves as his own cinematographer for the first time, shooting with cutting-edge large-format digital photography captured in HDR to result in a crisp, rich image. But the images are also presented in black-and-white, and the camera rarely comes in for a close-up or pushes inward. Instead, we as audience members are relegated to the role of objective observer. We’re watching these memories play out, some of them incredibly painful, but we’re not allowed to step in and take action. We can only bear witness.
There are plenty of signature long-takes from Cuarón in the film, but they’re not necessarily of the tracking variety. Quite often the camera will be placed in the center of a room, and will slowly spin around on its axis to capture the action happening around it. Again, we’re objective observers, and while the images that Cuarón conjures are breathtakingly beautiful, it’s heartbreaking to know you can’t step in and do something.
The performances of all involved are impressive, but it’s Aparicio who leaves the most significant impression. It’s hard to put into words exactly what she does here, but it almost feels like a magic trick. There’s a voyeuristic quality to the aesthetic of the film, but of course Cleo sometimes feels like a voyeur herself. Not technically part of the family, but present and involved in all of their ups and downs. All the while Cleo has her own struggles, which must be kept private. Aparicio telegraphs all of this and more with her face, her body language, and the way she looks at the family. Her work is stunning.
It feels like every single scene of ROMA could be broken apart and studied all its own. Cuarón packs so much into each frame, from the rich production design to visual symbolism to the performances, you just want to soak it all in. Indeed, by the end of the film you’re not ready to leave this family. Despite the objective viewpoint, you fall in love with them. You feel part of them. And you want to see that they’ll make it, that their love for each other will surpass any and all obstacles put in their way. The final scenes bring about a wave of emotions, some of which you may not even be able to explain. That’s the work of a master filmmaker, and with ROMA, Cuarón has made a masterpiece.
ROMA is now available to stream on Netflix.