Montag, 1. Oktober 2018


When Gravity won seven Oscars in 2014, including one for direction, it was widely seen as the crowning achievement of Alfonso Cuarón's illustrious career. To be sure, the CGI-heavy space thriller was a visual feast, but five years on, much about its narrative feels hokey, ill-suited to the grandeur of the imagery. In a way, Roma, Cuarón's first project as an Academy Award winner, rectifies that – the substance has caught up with the style.

Roma is Cuarón's first film since Y tu Mamá también, released in 2001, to take place in a recognisably everyday setting. It trades in space, wizarding schools (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and dystopian wastelands (Children of Men) for a rigorously defined, deeply personal time and place: the megalopolis of Mexico City between the summers of 1970 and 1971, as experienced by a middle-class family and, most notably, its indigenous live-in maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

This is a setting Cuarón knows intimately, and it shows. Born in 1961, the son of a well-to-do nuclear physicist from the Mexican capital, the events which roughly bookend his latest film – the 1970 FIFA World Cup and the infamous "Hawk Strike" massacre – will likely have had a significant impact on him.

Maybe that's why he is working with more creative freedom than ever before here: apart from directing Roma, he also wrote, produced, edited, and – in an unprecedented move – shot it, foregoing the services of long-time collaborator and three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman). The difference is surprisingly noticeable. Whereas Lubezki is a master of the free-flowing camera that effortlessly glides through three-dimensional space, Cuarón, though equally fond of long takes, is almost a minimalist: he shoots in expressive black-and-white; he pans along straight lines, turns the camera up, down, left, and right in simple 90-degree angles, keeps it perfectly still to zero in on a detail – a shattered window, a pensive Cleo, a wailing student protestor cradling a fallen comrade.

Roma follows a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as a maid for a bourgeois family in Mexico City.
© Netflix
There is a plot here – quite a bit of it, actually – but Cuarón doesn't push it into the foreground, recalling at times Mike Leigh's brand of seemingly incidental storytelling. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a failing marriage, a harrowing subplot of radicalised machismo, but even though the emotional toll of all these elements is played out in full, they are still dwarfed by the sheer enormity of the life that surrounds them. Few scenes pass by without at least three or four things happening at once. Street scenes are dominated by the deafening clamour of the big city; elsewhere, nature provides an overwhelming intensity of sound. The narrative is interlaced with grand, sweeping set pieces featuring hundreds of extras.

The world Roma conjures up feels authentic, almost viscerally lived-in. This is Cuarón's Ulysses, his People on Sunday; and 1970s Mexico City is his 1900s Dublin, his late-1920s Berlin. It is told in indelible moments and images, which demand to be seen, heard, and felt in a movie theatre (which is ironic, given Netflix co-produced) – and which to recount in detail cannot hope to do justice to their breathtaking beauty.


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