AFI Fest Review: Alfonso Cuarón Paints a Powerful Portrait of Love and Family with ‘Roma’

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Roma Review

Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón has been working for decades and has built a reputation as one of the best filmmakers working today as a kind of cinematic maximalist, proven by his modern sci-fi classic Children of Men and Gravity. For his first film in five years, Cuarón takes a different turn with the personal, emotionally grounded drama Roma. A semi-autobiographical tale, Roma is inspired by the filmmaker’s youth in Mexico and the nanny who helped raise him. Roma is an emotional journey through the past and Cuarón takes the audience by the hand and guides them through a life that is full of unexpected moments ranging from hilarious comedy to heartbreaking tragedy.

In a home in Mexico City, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works hard in the household of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and Sofía (Marina de Tavira), living in a guest house towards the back of the estate. While the heads of the household are at work, Cleo tends to the needs of the home and watches over their three children. Antonio is often travelling for work as a medical doctor. It’s not quite apparent at first but it soon becomes evident that marital tensions are rising in the household. Away from the household, Cleo meets the young man Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a self-described student of the martial arts, and the two quickly enter into a sexual relationship. However, once Cleo realizes that she’s pregnant and informs Fermin, the young man vanishes from her life. All of these factors place Cleo in a tenuous position as tensions are rising in the home where she works and she full of uncertainty about her own future.

At first, it seems that Alfonso Cuarón is setting up Roma as a kind of slice-of-life picture with little drama or tension. The camera slowly pans as it follows Cleo’s routine in tending to the household. The film moves slowly but establishes clearly the various relationships between Cleo and the family for which she works. In a way, Cuarón is playing a form of cinematic rope-a-dope, letting you drop your defenses before unleashing a number of devastating one-two punches which will make you gasp and cause your gut to sink.

Even when the film takes turns into tragedy, all is not lost as Cuarón fills Roma with moments of heartwarming love and little moments of big humor. One particularly funny moment has the family going to the movie to watch the 1969 film Marooned. The particular scene shown has two astronauts stranded in space, obviously echoing Cuarón’s previous film Gravity. Another comical aspect of the film is Professor Zovek (played by wrestler Latin Lover), who impresses audiences with his feats of strength which include pulling a truck by a rope in his teeth. It becomes apparent over time that Roma is a slice-of-life film, but one that illustrates that life is full of moments of love and heartbreak, of peace and violence, of moments quiet and loud, of the mundane and of the absurd.

As much Roma is filled with these personal stories and moments of raw emotion, Alfonso Cuarón still finds ways to make this story as cinematic as possible, employing an array of tricks that tap into his maximalist tendencies. A trip over New Year’s Eve escalates with a stunning scene of a wildfire and the efforts of everyone to get water to the blaze. A lone man steps towards the front of the frame and begins to sing a ballad as the flames blaze behind him. Towards the film’s climax, there’s a horrific scene unfolding as Cleo is trapped in the chaos of the Corpus Christi Massacre, which operates as a masterfully constructed set piece of action and direction but is rooted in the absolute horror of being completely powerless amidst the chaos of a senseless slaughter. There’s another emotional element to the scene but I’ll withhold details for reasons of spoilers. It’s a testament to the masterful direction (as well as cinematography) of Alfonso Cuarón that Roma is able to hit its moments, be they visual or emotional.

I don’t think the full power of Roma will be felt on an initial viewing. At times, I was left fairly cold at its opening scenes as I was waiting to find out where it was going. Alfonso Cuarón takes his time in establishing the foundation of Roma and it’s not easy to pick up on how the first half will reverberate in the second on a first viewing. However, in the days since seeing Roma the film has rarely left my mind, as the themes of familial bonds ring true and earnest. Having only watched Roma once, I’m not quite ready to declare it an all-out masterpiece, but it is a powerful, emotionally resonant work of cinema.

Roma
  • Overall Score
4.5

Summary

A visually stunning, emotionally resonant semi-autobiographical film by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is a powerful film that is masterfully constructed that runs the audience through a gamut of emotions as the writer-director recalls his youth in Mexico City and the nanny who helped raise him.

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