A new film from Alfonso Cuarón is a rare treat. Roma is only his ninth film in the 27 years since Solo con Tu Pareja, his directoral debut. The four films he directed so far in the 21st century have all been various shades of masterpiece: The sexy, tragic road trip Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), the best Harry Potter movie, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the prescient Children of Men (2006), and the $700-million orbital juggernaut Gravity, which earned him a Best Director Academy Award.
So, why did we have to wait five years after Cuarón pumped up Warner Brother’s bottom line by half a billion dollars for a new work from the master director? The politics and economics of Hollywood are as obscure as any Byzantine court, but having seen Roma, I’m going to go with “executive cowardice” as an explanation. Because that’s usually a safe bet. An even safer bet is the Hollywood establishment’s whinge and whine when Roma, produced by Netflix instead of an old guard studio, is clearly superior to anything they put in theaters in 2018.
The heart of Roma is Yalitza Aparicio, a 25-year old preschool teacher who had never acted before Cuarón cast her as Cleo, a servant in the Mexico City home of a wealthy doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Cleo takes orders from his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and nannies the couple’s four children. We meet her cleaning up dog poop left by the family’s canine, whose digestive system is apparently hyperactive. The opening shot, which layers stone, water, and sky, is the most beautiful poop joke setup in cinema history.
A lot of bad stuff happens to Cleo in Roma, but part of Cuarón’s genius is to recognize that a great film should take the viewer through a wide range of emotions, from laughter to tears and everything in between. Thus, one of our greatest living directors spends a long time lovingly photographing dog doo-doo.
I could spill a lot of words on Roma’s technical achievements. The photography, which the director did himself, is not so much black and white as it is creams and grays. Cuarón is the undisputed master of the long take. A couple of scenes in Roma are the equal of the epic, one-take battle scene in Children of Men. Most incredible is the climactic beach scene filmed at dusk with the camera looking directly into the setting sun. Cuarón even playfully throws in references to his other films, Gravity most hilariously.
Roma is, on one level, an epic story about Mexico at a political crossroads. Political violence is everywhere in Chloe’s world, but she takes little notice until it crushes her future. On another level, it’s a feminist story of male violence and irresponsibility devastating the human and natural worlds. But fundamentally, it’s a character piece about Chloe. Aparicio’s placid, yet expressive face sometimes recalls Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Hers is a brilliant, unmannered performance.
As far as the streaming vs. theater debate goes, the home theater experience of Roma is satisfying. Even on my moderately priced, consumer-level TV audio system, the sound design is outstanding. But Cuarón’s sweeping vistas of the Mexican countryside cry out to be seen on the big screen. Just when it looked like we would not get a theatrical screening of Roma, Indie Memphis has announced it will be sponsoring one on January 29 at the Paradiso. Even if you’ve already seen Roma — maybe even especially if you’ve already seen Roma — it’s not to be missed.