An Oscar-sweeping drama into a domestic worker's life. Bring tissues.
Inspired by the director, Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood, ROMA follows the life of a domestic worker named Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio). It is the 1970s. While Cleo works for a family that is undergoing their own upheaval, she herself is dealing with her personal distress. Oh, and there's the whole 'civil strife' thing that Mexico is undergoing. It's a languid excursion into navigating the chaos that is life.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
ROMA is Cuarón’s autobiography. Culled from his memory of his childhood in Colonia Roma, Mexico City, ROMA is an exercise in revisitation. It's not verbatim but it's damn close. The house, Cleo and the family live in, is a near-replica of Cuarón’s own childhood home. Furniture that was present then were scoured to be used in the film; scenes were shot at the actual locations that an incident had occured in.
The film is also an autobiography of Cuarón’s domestic helper, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. Except it's a year of her life seen through Cuarón’s lens. In the movie, she's Cleo and is played by Yalitza Aparicio. Aparicio isn't an actor—in fact, most of the cast were non-actors. Cuarón wanted his cast 1) to look like the people of his past 2) have a modicum of acting ability. In that order.
But this gamble gave us something that's naturalistic. Aparicio, who was on track to be a teacher, holds your attention with a look. You'll feel the heartbreak when she cradles her stillborn or the love that she has for the children or the panic as she rushes into the ocean to look for her charges… which is very true given that Aparicio, like her character, doesn't know how to swim.
That is one of Cuarón's many tricks. For attaining the movie's casualness, Cuarón didn't provide the cast with the script. Only on the day of shooting, Cuarón would speak to the actors involved in the scene. And even then, he would feed each of them conflicting directions, which keeps them on their toes. Each interaction is borne out of spontaneity.
For a film that's based on the director's memory, the film showcased in an unapologetic clarity—hi-def resolution, grainless; the dynamism of the black-and-white is the benefit of the use of digital film.
Without the aid of his good and faithful cinematographer, Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki, Cuarón took on the task himself. Although shot in colour, Cuarón selected certain hues that won't clash with the monochrome in post-production.
The audience takes in a plethora of details thanks to the wide shots. No matter how unhurried a scene, there's always something happening—random characters can enter or leave the frame; the background is always abuzz—we are aware of other people's lives just as one is unspooling right before our eyes.
What we didn't like
That people won't like it.
Let's be honest, this film isn't for everybody. Some might say that it's a foreign-language film and reading really puts a downer on movie night. Others might be turned off by how slow-paced it is.
But if you fail to watch it, you will miss out on, what I foresee as, an award-winning, cinematic masterpiece for years to come.
What to look out for
Well, everything. Cuarón is at the top of his game. Your heart will bleed with how beautiful a scene is shot but your mind is also trying to glean some hint as to how it was shot. Try and wrap your mind around how he shot the scene where Cleo goes out into the ocean.
ROMA is now out on Netflix.