Four years after his Oscar-winning Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron returns with a decidedly different film in Roma. Working on a much smaller—but no less effective—scale, Roma is a moving tribute to the female servant he grew up with during the early '70s in the Mexico City suburb of the movie's title.
Cuaron, who claims 90 percent of the movie is based on his childhood memories, tells the story from the female servant's point of view. Renamed Cleo for the movie, and played by Yalitza Aparicio in an astonishing, heartbreaking performance, Cleo is the glue holding the family she tends to together as their philandering patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), abandons them.
The remaining family consists of four children, their mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and their grandmother (Veronica Garcia). They rely heavily upon Cleo, who responds with a dedicated, steadfast grace no matter how tense the situation gets.
That situation worsens when Cleo experiences her own version of male abandonment after becoming pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts-obsessed, criminally selfish man who should have the first letter of his name replaced with a "V." Fermin, as it will turn out, is so despicable he makes Antonio look like an absolute sweetheart.
So Cleo and Sofia are left alone, with Sofia's situation always sort of happening in the background. We only get brief snippets of conversations and occurrences that allow Cleo and the family to know the father is not coming back. The abandonment of Cleo by Fermin, however, is handled in a far blunter, and repeatedly awful, display of total human cruelness.
And, as mentioned before, Cleo goes through it all without becoming a burden on anyone. She carries her baby full term, still tending to the family's children and supporting Sofia. Sofia has a few moments when she almost unravels, lashing out at her children and Cleo. She has a kind heart, but the pressure is almost too much to take, and it shows on her surface. Not so with Cleo, who rarely shares much of her personal feelings. I say rarely, but she does speak out in a few choice moments. Those moments are devastating.
The movie covers about a year in the life of the family, and it's a slow build. Filmed in black and white, its every shot is a beautiful thing to admire, all the more amazing in that Cuaron acted as his own cinematographer for the first time on a feature film.
Much of the movie happens in slow pans, it isn't very wordy, and it adheres to a certain level of reality that can be taken as mundane at times. It's daringly simple and somehow majestic at the same time. There are some grand-scale moments. A sequence depicting a violent student uprising is visceral and taut. A near-tragic event on a beach is frighteningly real and totally fills the screen.
Yet, most of the movie is made up of the little moments that string a life together. A dog hopping up on your dress, a kid asking for Twinkies, a car rubbing alongside the carport's walls because it's too damned wide. Halfway into the movie, you really feel as if you've been living with this family and know them quite well.
There have been a lot of great performances by actresses this year, and Aparicio's is a truly remarkable one. She's in nearly every scene, she gives us one of the year's most memorable characters, and this is the only movie she has ever been in. She will break your heart. When she tries to sit down for a second to watch a TV show, when she faces a troublesome birth on her own, when she's yelled at for missing a few of her daily tasks—I repeat, Aparicio will break your heart.
Roma continues what it is turning out to be a breakthrough year for Netflix, who have given the movie a limited big-screen release along with making it available for streaming on their site. This, along with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers, are total proof that the streaming service has become a giant purveyor of original cinema goodness.
Roma opens at the Loft Cinema Friday, Dec. 14.