The best chefs don't need much in the kitchen in order to create a master dish. You can hold onto the fancy stoves, sharp knives, and tipping stack of cookbooks with these creators. They have the recipe in their head, can use bare essentials for a meal, and do so with rusty tools. The true artists make magic out of simplicity.
The same can be said for filmmakers. Auteurs like Alfonso Cuaron can take the ordinary and turn it into something profound. Example: Cuaron's latest film, Roma, a beautifully rendered drama draped in black and white tones with harsh themes, will be making some Oscar noise for Netflix, and for good reason. Set in war-torn Mexico City in the 1970's, Roma details a family's struggle with evolving change over the course of one year.
Told from the point of view of the maid/nanny Cleo (a terrific Yalitza Aparicio), the two hour-plus is an unflinching look at the many forms and identities that family can take on. Cleo, together with Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), looks after a household that includes four kids (Tono, Sofi, Paco, Pepe), a crumbling marriage (Marina de Tavira's Sofia and Fernando Grediaga's Antonio), and a tough-as-nails grandmother, Teresa (Veronica Garcia).
Unlike most people in her profession, Cleo is leaned on for much more than picking up pet droppings, folding sheets, and preparing a meal. She is a second mother to the four kids, especially the young Pepe. All the while harnessing her own stress, desires, and needs. When a fling with the chaotic young Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) goes sour, Cleo doesn't so much suppress as he does swallow the guilt of the decision. Here is a young woman who puts another family over her own needs. It's much more than a paycheck.
In addition to the distress in her own life and the world of her second family, Mexico City was a turbulent time in the 70's. Politically unkempt and frequented by deadly riots, living there wasn't exactly a death wish, but an uneasy daily habitat to raise a child, much less four of them. Watching Cleo, Sofia, and Teresa weather the storm of bad men, an endangered environment, and an uncertain future makes for a riveting, if not always enjoyable experience.
Roma isn't always easy on the eyes, and that can pertain to a naked man performing martial arts in front of his girlfriend or threatening that same woman with violence. The film captures everything here, seeking out all the uncomfortable moments that life has to offer for this family in the span of a year. You see as many tears as smiles, and often feel like looking away-but Cuaron never lets your eyes or attention waver. The writer-director wants to capture the beauty inside the darkness.
Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous. Cuaron has an attention for detail that other filmmakers should study. The opening scene involves a tiled driveway and a mop, and the filmmaker manages to find an original stroke of genius behind it. Another sequence, involving an oversized car in that same driveway, carries a boatload of meaning due to the way Cuaron shoots the scene.
As Antonio attempts to squeeze his car into the family's drive, he has to stop, readjust, pull left, back up a little, and so on for a long sequence. It's not a guy trying to be a perfectionist. Antonio is a husband and father who wants to shed his skin and responsibilities. The car is too big for the driveway; the man's ego is too big for the household. Cuaron shows you all of that with a series of gear shifts, a cigarette being shoved into an ash tray in between pulls, and simple movements of the actor. Again, finding mastery inside simplicity is what great filmmakers do.
I'll admit that the first hour of the Roma requires patience, but that the second half, especially the third act, provide a payoff of multiple varieties. Emotional and physical closure, and two powerful scenes that won't soon leave your mind. The first involves the birth of a child where Cuaron doesn't move the camera once. The second where the director tracks Cleo going into the ocean after the kids. The meaning and severity of its connection to the plot is not something I want to divulge, but just know the impact is legit.
I couldn't believe this was Aparicio's first role, and she is stunning as Cleo, the epicenter of Cuaron's odyssey. The skill here is in the restraint the actress shows for the majority of the film. A quiet yet strong woman sworn to always put herself second, Aparicio comes off like a seasoned pro in conveying the slow-moving storm brewing inside our heroine. She allows you to see it without overdoing it, hamming it up, or cranking up the melodrama. It's a righteous debut.
I have high praise for de Tavira, who injects the beaten yet not broken soul of Sofia with a rigid grace that can withstand different forms of agony. At first, she seems like a sidepiece to the overall picture, but she gains momentum as the plot intensifies, like a phone slowly charging up for a long road trip. While the rest of the cast is solid, Aparicio and de Tavira will steal your heart with their will during the last 30 minutes. Wow. Keep an eye on both of these ladies.
Roma struggles with pacing in the first hour, but closes with authority. Throughout, you'll marvel at its beauty and the precise vision of its maker. Cuaron pulls out all the stops. You can tell this was personal to him and a labor of love. The wonderful thing about a Netflix release along with a theater run is this story gets released instantly to 180+ countries. Everybody can see a film that will surely net multiple Oscar nominations.
This may be the first film to make The Academy consider a Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture nomination. There will be an argument.
Roma's unflinching honesty about the rigors of life's darkest corridors is worn like a badge of honor and in the end, you'll be glad Alfonso Cuaron took you on this ride.