Combustible Celluloid
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With: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Verónica García, Nancy García García, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Andy Cortés
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language
Language: Spanish, Mixtec, with English subtitles
Running Time: 135
Date: 12/13/2018

Roma (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Maid in Mexico

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Alfonso Cuaron follows his masterpiece Gravity the best way he can, not by trying to go bigger, but by going back to his childhood, making this loving ode to the women who raised him with poetic, crystalline visual glory.

In Roma, it's late 1971, and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a maid for a family in the Roma district of Mexico City. Cleo has a good relationship with the family's three children, whom she takes care of, and things seem to be going well enough. But the husband and wife's relationship is under some strain, and before long the husband departs, leaving Sofia (Marina de Tavira) in charge.

Meanwhile, Cleo becomes involved with a young man, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and gets pregnant. Fermin disappears, but Sofia lovingly agrees to help Cleo with the pregnancy. Cleo tracks down Fermin, and he brushes her off, denying any involvement. Meanwhile, student protests turn violent all over the city, and Cleo finds herself facing her deepest fears in more ways than one.

Like Gravity, Roma shows a graceful, effortless, yet complete command over light, space, and rhythm, recalling films like Sunrise and The Night of the Hunter, as well as European masters like Bresson, Fellini, and Antonioni. Thematically, it's all his own, as he follows his strong characters moving through impressively beautiful, massive, and sometimes threatening space.

Cuaron continues to use his trademark sustained, unbroken shots, but while he has proven himself a master at the use of color, his use of black-and-white here shows that he is just as adept with shadows and textures. (The opening shot, with an airplane reflected in a puddle on the floor as Cleo cleans, is a beauty.)

His Cleo is a curious character, seemingly impassive, almost as if shy to show her emotions, but when she does, it's tender and moving. Despite this, Roma really puts her through a ringer, but as in Cuaron's other stories of women (A Little Princess, Gravity, etc.), his approach is delicate and affectionate; he never bludgeons.

Her trials and tribulations are foreshadowed with little omens, such as playing "dead" with one of the children or a small earthquake in a hospital, that are almost indirect suggestions of conflict. Even moments of intensity, as when a demonstration turns into a violent riot, or Cleo giving birth, are handled as if the viewer were in shock, or disbelief. The filmmaker is on our side, not trying to bash us over the head.

Most affecting and most memorable are the small, fleeting moments of joy and beauty, touches that make Roma another Cuaron masterpiece.

Although the movie is available forevermore to stream on Netflix, it's also monumental enough to have deserved a Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray edition is simply majestic, and it features Criterion's first disc with Dolby Atmos sound. Bonuses include a 72-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, going far beyond the usual talking-head thing; other, shorter documentaries: "Snapshots from the Set" (32 minutes), "The Look of Roma" (21 minutes), "The Sound of Roma" (27 minutes), and an 18-minute featurette about the film's theatrical release in Mexico.

We also get two trailers, and a thick liner notes booklet that includes essays by novelist Valeria Luiselli and historian Enrique Krauze, along with writing by author Aurelio Asiain and production-design images with notes by Eugenio Caballero. If you haven't yet seen this miraculous, one-of-a-kind movie, start here.

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