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A scene from Alfonso Cuaron's Roma.

Carlos Somonte/Netflix via AP

  • Roma
  • Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron
  • Starring Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira
  • Classification N/A; 135 minutes

rating

About halfway into Roma, I knew I was in big trouble.

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, focusing on one upper-middle-class family and the domestic servant who waits on them, arrives with a high and intimidating pedigree. Cuaron is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today, his boundless imagination and intense commitment to the craft reflected across genre and scope, from the thousand tiny and intimate dramas that play out in Y Tu Mama Tambien to the global scale of destruction depicted in Children of Men. Roma is the director’s passion project, a drama literally decades in the making, with its narrative pulled from Cuaron’s own childhood memories of growing up in the titular Mexico City neighbourhood circa 1970. It is also the auteur’s first film in five long years, the last being an outer-space anxiety attack that changed attitudes as to what could or could not be accomplished in the medium.

Expectations were, simply put, high. As was the pressure to process Roma – to judge it.

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There was no exact moment that my troubling realization arrived. Maybe it was during the film’s opening three minutes, when Cuaron’s camera is focused squarely on a simple stone floor, soapy water rhythmically washing over its tiles in a hypnotic groove, the image of a gently whooshing commercial airliner cutting across the reflection. Perhaps it was the point when a gigantic Ford Galaxy squeezes itself into a far-too-small alley, a brief moment of comic relief that doubles as a metaphor for the scrapes Roma’s central clan are set to endure. Just as likely, it was the scene where a bustling crowd files into a movie theatre, as eager to be transported as we already are, steeped deep inside Cuaron’s world.

Whatever the moment, it didn’t take long to know that there was no way I would ever be able to appropriately articulate what Cuaron accomplishes in Roma. I could spend the next several hundred words doling out superlatives – and I will – but the words “sublime” and “dazzling” and “brilliant” fail to match just how tremendous a work Roma is. The responsibility, and extreme privilege, of being able to critique such a work just doesn’t seem fair. Cuaron has created a masterpiece beyond reproach – critic-proof in the best, most terrifying possible way.

Netflix, the disruptive distributor behind Roma (more on that in a bit), is billing this as Cuaron’s “most personal film ever,” which is both accurate and underwhelming marketing. That sort of statement calls to mind languid, sombre affairs that are as much about a filmmaker exorcising various demons as they are about testing audiences' patience. Roma is certainly deeply, inextricably tethered to Cuarón’s life – he’s called the film “autobiographical, in the sense that 90 per cent of the scenes come out of my memory” – with the director going so far as to cast performers who look as much as possible like the original members of his family. But Roma is a wholly universal work, too, a quaking and tumultuous act that mines Cuaron’s personal history to make an excellent case that we all have the right to love, and be loved, for as much time as we’re afforded in this life.

Roma's narrative is pulled from Cuaron’s own childhood memories of growing up in the titular Mexico City neighbourhood.

Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Most of Roma’s action is confined to a facsimile of Cuaron’s childhood home – a sprawling, intricately detailed house filled with screaming children, quarrelling adults and sagging bookcases. Cuaron, acting as his own cinematographer (his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki wasn’t available), treats the family’s lair with a mix of intense curiosity and reverence. Every room holds a secret or forgotten drama. Senor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the ostensible master of the house, is a busy doctor, either working at the local hospital or away at international conferences. Instead, the refined and commanding Senora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) reigns here, her four young children and elderly mother populating various corners of the property. And living both above them all (literally, in her walk-up) and below (metaphorically) are indigenous Mixtec housekeepers Adela (Nancy Garcia) and Roma’s true focus, the young Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Cleo cooks, cleans, cares for the children and acts as an emotional support system for the entire family, the latter skill being particularly useful after Sofia endures a personal crisis. But Cuaron isn’t solely interested in Cleo’s place within her employers' world, but within the one in which she takes her own steps. These include regular outings with Adela, a short-lived dalliance with a cocky wannabe martial artist (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and, eventually, an unexpected life change so profound that even Cleo can’t process it until it’s almost too late.

Against all of these small misadventures, Cuaron delicately resurrects the Mexico City of his youth, from the simple energy of its jammed streets and cinemas to its deep reservoirs of corruption and anger (which peak during the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, depicted here as a seismic, bloody moment of student protest). While the director doesn’t attempt to top the single-take trickery of Children of Men or Gravity (although he does sneak in a neat, retroactive callback to the latter), his aesthetic rigour is awe-inspiring. Cuaron’s camera tracks Roma’s action with a swooping sense of energy and profound empathy. Everything in the film is an integral part of a greater, more profound whole. Roma is a portrait of not only a family, of not only a city, of not only a country, but a specific, indelible moment in time and space. The fact that Cuaron accomplishes all of this in stark black and white only adds to the confidence of his vision.

Also outstanding and not a little bit magical is first-time actress Aparicio, who was an aspiring preschool teacher in Oaxaca before taking a gamble on Cuaron’s open casting call. Her performance, modelled heavily after Cuaron’s beloved childhood nanny Libo, is impossibly strong – grounded in a way that suggests intimacy with both Cuaron’s sensibilities and the struggles of Cleo herself.

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Aparicio’s casting also speaks to the general miracle that is Roma. Shot entirely in Spanish and Mixtec, in black and white, starring unknown performers, the film would have a hell of a time getting green-lit by any major studio. So we should all bow down and pay homage to distributor Netflix for helping ensure the US$15-million film saw the light of day. Yet Roma begs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find – a tricky proposition considering Netflix and exhibitors are locked in a till-death-do-they-part duel. (The streaming giant insists on making its films available to subscribers the same day they might be released theatrically – what’s called “day-and-date” releasing – a concession few cinemas are willing to make, believing that the policy cannibalizes their own business.)

Recognizing the cultural importance of Roma – and the fact it may earn the company a few coveted Academy Awards – Netflix is ever-so-slightly breaking its day-and-date policy by offering Cuaron’s film to willing partners a few weeks in advance of its streaming debut. For some theatres, such as the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, that’s a good-enough deal. But for many audiences without access to major metropolitan art houses, it’s the small screen where Roma will be consumed.

It is so easy to play the theatrical evangelist and insist or even demand that you travel however far and spend however much to see Roma on the big screen. But it truly is better for the work to exist at all than not. However you experience it, Roma is an experience unlike any other.

Roma opens Nov. 29 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, and is available to stream on Netflix starting Dec. 14.

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