Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" Marks Netflix's First Knockout

Rooted in Italian neorealism but thoroughly a product of his own Mexican upbringing, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is the filmmaker’s crowning achievement. In telling the story of a live-in housekeeper in Mexico City circa 1970, “Roma” goes refreshingly small, allowing its bigger moments to hit like a tsunami. Make no mistake. “Roma” is an Alfonso Cuarón picture, wielding a handful of special effects-driven sequences. But they arrive organically, never betraying the film’s small scale, each packing an emotional wallop.

As such, the project is an almost perfect synthesis of the “Children Of Men” and “Gravity” director’s best narrative and visual instincts – albeit one likely to exasperate millions of potential viewers.

Rolling out on Netflix with a limited theatrical release, the movie and its admittedly slow pace will drive many to watch it in bits and pieces, if not abandon it entirely. Not only is the theater the place to take in its gorgeous black and white photography, seamless FX, and rolling sound design, but it’s the ultimate motivation to watch it in one sitting. “Roma” begs distraction-free viewing: a clear, focused mind to gnaw on its heady themes and pervasive symbolism.

The less known about acts two and three going in, the richer the experience to be had. The setup is this: a twenty-something woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) must navigate turmoil in both her personal and professional life. The middle class family of six she housekeeps for is going through an upheaval; father and husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is evidently making an exit plan, leaving mother and wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to wallow in the aftermath.

Cleo’s romantic life, particularly a fling with a martial artist named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), is the force that powers the narrative, but Cleo’s story is ultimately defined on her own terms. Although Cuarón is obviously committing many of his own memories to film here, Cleo and Sofia are remarkably well drawn – not merely avatars for the director but fully formed characters with agency and depth rarely afforded to female characters. Even in 2018.

Equally impressive is how Cuarón weaves real-life Mexican history in with Cleo’s story, allowing his showiest proclivities to manifest themselves in a few of these moments. A sequence featuring the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, where a paramilitary group gunned downed student protestors (the death toll ultimately climbed into triple digits), pays off Cleo and Fermín’s association in the most earthshaking way imaginable, brought to life by the year’s smoothest special effects work.

There are a few more breathtaking moments en route, each one mesmerizing in its own rare way. A coastal climax sparkles with immediacy and breadth, acting as an unassuming showcase for all of the film’s assets. Especially its cast.

Cuarón’s entire ensemble is excellent throughout, but Aparicio (a newcomer) and de Tavira (primarily a Mexican stage actor) are golden, perfectly modulating their performances in time with the screenplay’s peaks and valleys. Even charged with a director famous for using the entire frame to tell his stories, they stand out from start to finish. Not even Oscar-winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney could cut through the cold visual pomp of “Gravity.”

“Roma” is that rare small, big film that engrosses entirely on its own terms, long and slow but full, painstakingly meted out by a filmmaker at the top of his game. Its reach will not be great as it should be. It’s liable to bore the pants off a great number of Netflix subscribers, and it may strike some Oscar voters as ponderous – or even impenetrable. Dive beneath the surface, though, and it’s anything but.

No matter its awards haul, it will undoubtedly go down as one of 2018’s greatest screen triumphs. Even those frustrated by Cuarón’s more ostentatious tendencies have no choice now but to hand it to him. “Roma” is magnificent.

Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 14, 2018
Studio: Participant Media, Esperanto Filmoj, Netflix
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Nancy García García