Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Seven

27 roma

#27 — Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to reckon with their own past through their chosen medium, but the end result rarely carries as much grace as Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Drawing on his own history — and some retrospective misgivings laced throughout it — Cuarón meticulously charts the experience of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman working as a live-in maid and all-around family caretaker for an upper-crust household in Mexico City in the Early nineteen-seventies. Cleo is inextricably a part of the family that employs her, treated with a level of warm affection and inclusion that is on par with the sentiment extended to other extended relatives, such as cousins. At the same time, she’s met with offhand cruelty and indifference when moods shift like the winds. Mirroring her own heritage and place in the nation, Cleo is connected to the place she’s in and held apart from it.

Surrounding and infiltrating Cleo’s story is the competing story of a family falling apart, the matriarch (Marina de Tavira) putting on a trembling brave face for her children as the physician father (Fernando Grediaga) abandons the household. Cleo’s place within and without is further exacerbated by this domestic strife. Her modest attempts to build her own life outside of the family’s walls are complicated by the need to be a sounding board, a surrogate parent, a steadying presence in a time of unease. Aparicio brings a unique, unmannered sensitively to her portrait of the discomfort of being the flag tied to the midpoint of a tug-of-war rope, flapping and trembling with each sturdy jerk in opposing directions.

As delicate and caring as Cuarón’s screenplay is, it’s his directing that nudges Roma to a place of dreamlike beauty. Shot in luxuriant black and white by Cuarón — because his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, was unavailable and encouraged the director to take the task up himself — the film operates in the shifting shadows of memory, where even the high sun or the lights of a movie theater are dulled by passing time. The filmmaker’s trademark long takes are in evidence. Unlike the many others who have taken up the cinematic strategy in recent years, there’s always a purpose to Cuarón’s avoidance of the edit. The emotion of a moment is made bolder or the tension of a scene is enhanced. In the case of a nerve-wracking rescue at the beach, both outcomes are in play.

Roma is an act of vulnerability and generosity. It’s not only Cuarón’s acknowledgment of the film’s autobiographical nature that gives it a greater purity of feeling. The truth of it is on full display in every scene. It’s the work of art of a creator trying to understand his past and the way it runs through his present like a nervous system, the way it shapes the person he is and will be. In every way, Roma is cinema as revelation.

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