'Roma' Review: Alfonso Cuarón Has Made A Masterpiece Of Humanity And Empathy [TIFF]

Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is a singular achievement – a visually resplendent tale of empathy, focusing on a housekeeper in 1970s Mexico, and the family she works and lives with.

"The movies are like a machine that generates empathy," wrote Roger Ebert, and that description is more than apt for Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's new masterpiece. The most personal film yet from the director of Gravity and Children of MenRoma has Cuarón drawing on his own childhood to tell the tale of a family in 1970s Mexico City. What a marvel this movie is; what pure, cinematic delight.

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a housekeeper working (and living with) a family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma. Cleo enjoys a warm, often familial relationship with her employers – Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four precious children. She also has a life outside the family, including a budding romance with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who seems genuinely sweet at first, but eventually turns shockingly cruel.

I'll confess that Roma didn't hook me right away. It's curious that this film is distributed by Netflix, because Roma is the antithesis of a Netflix movie. The first section is slow moving, with almost no real narrative to speak of (the fact that the movie is completely void of musical score also contributes to this). Instead, Cuarón is setting the stage, introducing his players, getting us comfortable in this world. Using stunning black and white cinematography, Cuarón stages nearly every scene in meticulous detail.

There was a maddening trend at this years Toronto International Film Festival, where I saw Roma: movie after movie appeared to be shot in extreme close-up, or uninspired medium shots. So what a joy it was to witness Roma, which is loaded with beautiful wide shots in which nearly every inch of the frame is used to great effect. Cuarón stages moving tableaus – each scene looks like a landscape portrait come to life. The director also employs sweeping tracking shots done in one tack – the camera is constantly panning left or right, tracking Cleo and company as they travel throughout the story. It's visually marvelous.

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Just when I was starting to worry that Roma would be little more that a beautiful looking film with no narrative weight, Cuarón slowly begins to introduce the film's storylines, building towards something greater; something more emotionally complex. Dr. Antonio decides to up and leave his wife (we later see him running and laughing with a younger woman), sending Sofía into a emotional tailspin. She struggles to hide the separation from her children, telling them that Antonio is on a work trip to Canada.

In the midst of all this, Cleo learns she's pregnant with Fermín's baby – and Fermín wants nothing to do with it. Cleo is immediately apprehensive, and convinced Sofía is going to fire her. Instead, Sofía offers help, taking Cleo to see a doctor. Here, Cuarón begins presenting the warmth that makes Roma so remarkable. There's a running theme throughout the film of empathy; of characters in Cleo's orbit caring for her, and her well-being. At the same time, there are tumultuous moments. Earthquakes, fights, and a shocking, tragic moment late in the film that will reduce you to a sobbing mess (trust me). It's all part of Cuarón's larger plan. Because even the tragic moment results in a sequence brimming with hope, and compassion.

Aparicio is a revelation as Cleo. Much of the film requires Aparicio to simply observe the world, and people, around her. That may sound simple, but it's more complex – especially if you want to make it cinematic and engaging. Aparicio does that, and then some. There's not one false note to her quiet, assured, often tender performance. She embodies this character, and we never have a reason to doubt her. The quietness of the performance also works to lull the audience into a sense of calm and ease, which is shattered when Cleo has a wrenching emotional breakdown on a beach. Cuarón stages this perfectly, with Aparicio's tearful words rising over the constant crashing of unrelenting waves.

I'm by no means anti-Netflix. In fact, more often than not, I'd prefer to stay home and stream something rather then venture out to a theater. But Roma demands to be seen on the big screen (thankfully, Netflix is giving it a limited theatrical release).Cuarón's breathtaking 65mm cinematography demands to be projected large, and the film's slow, deliberate, quiet nature is not the type of thing to be simply streamed in the background as viewers check their cellphones. To do so would to do this film, and yourself, a diservice. The world is often harsh and unforgiving, and when a film with such compassion comes along, we owe it to ourselves to embrace it. To accept the empathy this film is radiating, and try to take a little of it home with us.

/Film rating: 10 out of 10