Monday 31 December 2018

Movie Review: Roma (2018)

A slice-of-life drama, Roma delves into family and social dynamics through the eyes of a dedicated maid.

It's the early 1970s in the relatively well-heeled Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. Along with her friend Adela, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is the maid, nanny and housekeeper for the upper middle class family of Dr. Antonio and his wife Sofia. The couple have three boys and a girl, and Cleo is the children's main support and caregiver, as well as taking care of the family's hyperactive dog. In her personal life, Cleo is seeing the highly-strung Fermin, who is into martial arts.

Discontent and anti-government student protests cause the occasional rumble on the bustling and often chaotic streets of Mexico City. Inside the household, Antonio is increasingly disenchanted and distant, and finally permanently absent, although Sofia keeps the separation a secret from the children. Cleo does her best to fulfil her duties, but an unwanted pregnancy will add complexity to her life.

Directed, written and filmed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is an ode to a childhood, and the woman who made it happen. Filmed in halcyon black and white and recreating with loving care the rich street life of Mexico City circa 1970, this is a visually sumptuous production. Cleo's world is filled with flowing linear and circular camera movements, the occasional perfectly still scene, long and languorous takes, and frames brimming with curious details in every corner.

With no conventional plot, Cuarón allows events mundane and profound to simply, and in two cases at the start and end of the movie, literally, wash over the family. From a marriage breakup to the continuous bickering of the children, passing through laundry duty on the roof, every new day brings its own challenges, and the family adapts in small ways and large.

Throughout the film Cuarón displays an understanding of what makes a city live, the dynamic streets and sidewalks often punctuated with the type of activity that leaves lasting impressions on a child. The city's energy hums on the energy of incessantly loud toy sellers, a non sequitur out-of-tune marching band, the oversized family car as representation of status, and a hemmed-in dog that spends its day defecating and barking at every passing thing outside the gate. Roma features unforgettable vignettes outside and inside a movie theatre, in a hospital, in a furniture store, through muddy shantytowns and on a dusty training field.

Through this vision of normalcy glides a maid and nanny who holds everything together. Floor cleaning, laundry, food preparation, school pick-up, dog clean-up and comforting the children, all completed without complaint. The maid is here to be effective but also quiet and just slightly distant, not to overreach her status and enter the inner family sanctum. In a telling scene, Sofia sends Cleo to fetch a cup of tea when just for an instant, she is warmly sharing in the full family's enjoyment of a television night. With no formal training or acting experience, Yalitza Aparicio brings a natural warmth and genuine affection to the role.

While some parts of this Mexico City do not function well, including the brutal repression of protests, men quick to abandon their duties, and lower class neighbourhoods sinking in mud, Cuarón also portrays a caring civic society. One of Roma's phenomenal highlights is a breathtaking hospital experience both harrowing and remarkably tender, displaying a system functioning for the working class. The favour is summarily returned: Cleo thinks nothing of putting her personal safety at risk, nudging her anxieties aside for the sake of the children.

Roma celebrates the mosaic of life in all its imperfections, a film simply resplendent in normalcy.

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