Review–Incredible cinematography and subtle, powerful storytelling makes Netflix’s Roma the well-deserved leading Oscar nominee

Review by C.J. Bunce

I am happy to have watched my first screening of Academy Award winning director Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma following a mini-marathon of Francis Ford Coppola’s seemingly incomparable The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2.  Otherwise I might buy into the rather pervasive critical sentiment that the film suffers from “lack of story.”  Although Coppola’s films have an exciting action-heavy plot, they, like Roma, are about family, and not every family is part of the Mob.  If audiences look harder at Roma they may find a lot more.  Cuarón, this year with five Oscar nominations for his own puppetmastery: director, writer, producer (best film/foreign film), and cinematographer (the film leads all nominees with ten nominations in all), has created that rare piece of artistry that is a historical snapshot like Oscar nominees of decades past.  And it’s an incredible piece of black and white cinematography, artfully filmed as admirably as the Godfather movies.

The film follows Cleo, played by newcomer Oaxacan actress Yalitza Aparicio, a live-in housekeeper for a well-to-do, “middle class” family in the Colonia Roma area of Mexico City of the early 1970s.  She’s an employee of the family, yet both in the home and in town she encounters reactions from her community that tell us she has second class status–she may live in the neighborhood, but she’s not a member of the family.  The synopsis of the film is brief: Cleo is single, gets a boyfriend, gets pregnant, he rejects her, and the result is tragic.  This is all presented as realistically as possible, and viewers can’t help but empathize with her at every turn.  At the same time the family has its own crisis–the father/husband leaves the wife and kids to fend for themselves, and they need to move on.  Her plight constantly is upstaged by the family matters.

The drama comes from the subtlety, the gestures, the care she gives for the family’s children, the dismissal she gets from professionals even when they are attempting to treat her with respect (as with doctors in a number of hospital visits).  How many people have encountered Cleos in their lives?  How do you treat them and see them treated?  Cuarón based Cleo on his own housekeeper from his youth, recreating his home, his neighborhood, and the Mexico City of his youth.  It’s no doubt that the pacing of the film could hardly be slower, thanks to Cuarón’s trademark long, single takes, and this will be a turn-off for some, especially in an era of sound bytes and action movies.  Yet Cuarón is forcing the audience to slow down and give the film their full attention.  The truth, the soul of the film, can be found in the nuance.  Even the slow pass at giant barrister shelves takes on its own meaning, the jet planes overhead, the father’s too-large-for-the-garage Ford Galaxie.  Statements are everywhere from production designer Eugenio Caballero, using furniture from Cuarón’s home to replicate the director’s memories of the era.

Cuarón includes some of the most unique uses of dogs in a film–hardly a scene goes by without dogs passing by, living on the streets of the city going about their business, not unlike the humans, focused on their own lives.  He also uses a rather jaw-dropping scene of taxidermy dogs (all props), reflecting both the strange choices of the wealthy and a possible reverence for house members throughout the history of their home.  Cuarón makes statements about society, space, and time at every turn if the audience is willing to watch for them.  It has its oddities, too: the family’s and Cleo’s leisure activities seem unusual, but nothing more than a baffling naked martial arts performance by Cleo’s boyfriend.

As time moves on even greater disparity comes to light between the family and Cleo with competing life issues.  Which leads to the only problem with the film: At some points watching someone respond to the world around them doesn’t give the full story, even if the view is of the protagonist going through obviously difficult circumstances.  We can see Cleo react, we can imagine, but we never really know what she is thinking and feeling.  Many people are like this in the real world, so Cuarón very well may be presenting a truth by taking this approach.  In reality the hope is someone would ask her.  Reflecting how a real person might respond, she won’t share her feelings with anyone.  Cleo never has that conversation with a companion that in any other film would give us a glimpse inside.

In many ways this is Cuarón’s Schindler’s List, beyond the black and white it’s a deeply personal story made giant in scope, focusing on the microcosm of the individual in the face of a time of tragedy and war.  And it’s certainly a love letter to someone he viewed as family.  His cinematography is as good as a John Ford movie, picturesque and scenic if only covering a neighborhood and house interior.

Roma is a direct-to-Netflix film that shows Netflix can showcase the highest quality of films.  Up for ten Academy Awards next weekend, including Best Picture, Foreign Language Film, Direction, Cinematography, Writing, Production Design, both Sound awards, and for the performances of Yalitza Aparicio in the leading role and supporting actress Marina de Tavira as the family’s matriarch, expect it to take home at least a handful of the awards, including Cuarón for Best Film, Foreign Film, Director, and Cinematography, and Aparicio for her untouchable performance.  It is streaming now on Netflix.

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