Roma review: Over the last couple of decades, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has directed everything from children’s fantasy with Harry Potter to sci-fi Gravity and the hugely impressive Children Of Men. For his first film with Netflix, the Mexican takes us back to his homeland for a deeply personal character drama which should return him to awards glory.

Roma review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Roma review [TIFF]

Mark my words now – Roma will score an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It has to be a cert. The feature, a two-hour-plus opus, absolutely blew me away and reduced me to a sobbing mess upon its North American debut here in Toronto. Filmed in monochrome (photographed and co-edited by the director himself) and released in its native language (Spanish and Mixtecs), isn’t exactly your typical commercial fodder, but the film will be thankfully guaranteed an audience as it will head straight to the streaming platform Netflix (which, I remind you, has over 100 million subscribers) in December 2018. Having not read reviews, seen any trailers, or heard much about the film prior to viewing, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can absolutely say that this is amongst Cuarón’s best work, and may just be his best film to date.

Set in early 1970s Mexico City, Roma focusses upon a middle-class family who lives in the Colonial Roma district of the city. The patriarch of the family, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), works away a lot, leaving his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and her mother at home to look after the four children that need constant attention and supervision – as well as feeding – most of which is managed by live-in nanny Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). There’s also the dog, who likes to crap all over the patio floor outside, the close-up image of which is the first thing we see, over the opening titles, Cleo eventually seen washing it down, which is just one of her many monotonous daily tasks.

Cleo’s life is clearly the family, though she meets and falls for local martial arts enthusiast Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and sleeps with him after they bypass a trip to the cinemas to enjoy other activities on a warm summer day. Cleo misses a period, and when she confronts Fermín to tell him that she might be pregnant, he bolts for the door leaving the young girl to face up to her new predicament alone.  Afraid that her job – and home may now be in the balance, Cleo tells Sofia and co. all of whom are having their own struggles in that it seems that the money has stopped coming in – the allusive Antonio not working away at all, but living a very different life across town with another woman, or indeed women.

I hope I haven’t revealed too much – I’ve tried to keep the story as vague as possible as Cuarón’s film really is one to experience for yourself. Every single image is like a still photograph, the filmmaker’s camera fluid and slow-moving to capture the action delicately and intricately.  Each move seems to have been worked out to perfection prior to physical filming, the framing just beautiful and the black and white textures complimenting the landscape of 1970s Mexico.

Related: Working Woman review [TIFF]

Yalitza Aparicio’s turn as Cleo – her first role – is near faultless, the young actor often just seen lurking in the background of scenes, though effortlessly projecting the mood of her character with just a look or glance. A scene late on in a hospital, which I won’t go into too much detail about is jaw-dropping, Cuarón refusing to cut away from what is playing out on screen, instead just letting the camera linger on Aparicio’s performance which, for a non-actor, is astounding and heart-breaking. This is the scene that really got to me, as did another which almost immediately followed – a physically demanding set piece at a stormy beach requiring Aparicio to reach for a very skillset, the camera once again following her every move in one seamless sweeping take.

Roma is also a film which looks really expensive. It is full of old cars, sweeping shots of 70s Mexico City as far as the eye can see, and the use of what looks like hundreds of extras. It’s also intimate, Cuarón pulling from his own experiences growing up, the personal nature of the film seeping through in every frame.

I’m sure the film won’t be for all. It’s a long one – 135 minutes – and slow-paced, which could be a challenge for even the most attentive and patient Netflix viewer to not reach for the remote. This is a film that should be experienced on a big-screen (it will get a brief Oscar-qualifying cinema run) due to its cinematic, visual qualities and even its stunning sound design.

I can’t recommend the film enough. Tell your friends, add it to your lists now. Roma is absolutely one of the best films of the year.

Roma review by Paul Heath, September 2018.

Roma was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.