A longer review for what is being thought of as the film of the year.   


When Alfonso Cuarón's new film won the Golden Lion at Venice, it was just the start of an outburst of praise that must have given him exceptional gratification. In 2013 Gravity quite rightly earned him huge acclaim but Roma, a film set in the Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s, is more personal than any previous work of his so its international success must be giving him a unique satisfaction. It has taken at least a decade to bring to fruition his long cherished wish to create a film that looks back on his own childhood and stands as a tribute to the woman who, employed as a domestic help by his parents, functioned as a nanny and contributed more than anyone else to making his early years happy ones.


Roma is dedicated to Liboria Rodriguez, the woman who inspired it, and who, in what is a strongly autobiographical work, is here recreated in the character of Cleo. This key role (the whole tale is told from her viewpoint) is splendidly played by Yalitza Aparicio who had not acted before but whose background is very similar to that of the real-life nanny, Libo, as she was known. The first third of Roma is every bit as remarkable as the praise for it had suggested. Photographed by the director himself, it looks splendid in the 'Scope format using black and white. Unhurriedly, it introduces us to Cleo, first seen cleaning down the marble-tiled driveway of the house where she works, and then through her to the wealthy family who employ her. With the head of the family, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), frequently absent, the central figure here is Sofía (Marina de Tavira) who is bringing up four young children, one girl and three boys. We meet too Cleo's  friend, Adela (Nancy García), who cooks for this same family and we recognise the essential role played by Cleo despite the fact that Sofía, without being unfriendly, takes her for granted in a way that reflects class attitudes in Mexico at this time.


It has to be recognised that this first section of Roma may not appeal to some modern-day audiences who are used to movies with lots of action and expect plenty by way of plot. If so, that is their loss, for the quality here is overwhelming. The film is masterly in its sense of atmosphere (a very precise and detailed use of background sound, both indoors and out on the streets, gives the film an immersive feel that makes us participate fully in Cleo's world). These memories of time past certainly impress through the ability displayed by Cuarón and by his players but, going beyond that, Roma conveys the sense that the filmmaker, acting as an artist unconcerned with commercial considerations, was here creating a work that he felt compelled to make. His commitment and the detailed care taken are on a par with what Terence Davies brought to his own memories of childhood in 1992's masterpiece The Long Day Closes.


I hope that it is clear from the above that I find such exceptional work in Roma that I would recommend it without hesitation. Yet at the same time, I am bound to extend this review to indicate why, for all its special qualities, I am not able to agree with those who, viewing it as a whole, declare it to be a masterpiece. In my case reservations entered in, albeit gradually. During that first third with its perfectly judged portrayal of the household, we learn that Cleo has recently attained a lover for the first time, this being Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). She is naive enough to be taken aback when, on learning that she is pregnant, he promptly abandons her. Although we viewers write him off as a bad lot, Cleo goes in quest of him and for the first time in the film this sequence seems over-extended (in total Roma will last 135 minutes and it does come to feel a rather long piece).


But it is the plot development that really made me question the overall quality of Roma. Although Cuarón sets out favouring a portrait of everyday life with women at its centre, he does in effect opt in time to develop two plot lines built respectively around what happens to Cleo and to Sofía. It makes perfect sense that these should intertwine and, furthermore, just as the emphasis on ordinary life extends naturally to startling events that happen to impinge (an earthquake, the observed shooting down of protesters on the streets), it is fair enough that the personal tales should incorporate moments of drama. One of these, that centred on Sofía, concerns the outcome of what has been implied as likely from very early on, the fact that Antonio's absences may well be connected to an adulterous affair. Since the effect of this on Sofía and the children is emphasised, this development is in keeping with Roma being about women's position in this society.


However, the other events, the most consciously dramatic ones, concern Cleo. What they are I should not disclose since they should not be anticipated by viewers and I should add too that I have no idea whether or not they are fictional additions or part and parcel of Cuarón's real-life memories. However, the first of them, involving as it is, has very little to do with Cleo's social position and as such seems to be at a tangent to what had been established as the central thrust of the film. But the most damaging is the second crisis that has Cleo at its centre: this one is set up in a way that smacks of fictional cliché - that is to say that you know exactly what is going to happen before it does and in consequence it feels unreal whether or not based on fact. These doubts that I have expressed seem not to be shared by those who hail this as a masterpiece and I myself felt them largely because I was comparing the standard of these later scenes with what had preceded them, scenes that had indeed achieved perfection.




Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Costina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García, Verónica García, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Grediaga, José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza.


Dir Alfonso Cuarón, Pro Alfonso Cuarón, Nicolás Celis and Gabriela Rodriguez, Screenplay Alfonso Cuarón, Ph Alfonso Cuarón, Pro Des Eugenio Caballero, Ed Alfonso Cuarón and Adam Gough, Costumes Anna Terrazas.

Esperanto Filmoj/Participant Media-Netflix/Curzon Artificial Eye.
135 mins. Mexico/USA. 2018. Rel: 30 November 2018. Cert. 15.