Cinema of the Americas and Gala Presentation of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival


Lost often in the current movie business of budgets, earning potential, and returns on investments is how these products we pay for with tickets and subscriptions are still a medium for personal expression. The overwhelming hope is that the teams of artists coming together for a motion picture are staking their reputations and pride on projects they believe in, respect, and hold dear. That range of commitment, however, is vacillating. Years and mountains of hard work and so-called passion projects have been undone by business goals and chased paychecks. It happens more often than we, and the industry, are willing to admit.

That unfortunate fate could not be farther away from a film like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. For all of those possible extrapolations of commitment and dedication taking place within the craft of filmmaking, you may never, not this year and maybe several more after, see a more intimate artistic expression than this powerful and personal film. To the man making Roma, this film is special. To those viewing it, this film is important. To the art it serves, this film could be a potential masterpiece, one springing forth from some of simplest and unassuming origins possible.

The humility on display begins in stark black-and-white opening on a fixed shot of cleansing water washing over detailed tile as it drifts across the view and empties off-screen. An unseen mop makes miniature waves in the present liquid. Holding further, the light draining sound begins to feel soothing as the water also creates a slight reflection to a quiet atmosphere. Lo and behold as the gaze widens, we learn this passing moment of domestic serenity is the scene of a woman cleaning dogsh-t off of a garage floor. It’s not cute little quick-smudge poodle droppings either. It’s voluminous hot mess excrement from a heftier dog. Oh, how the mood changes.

The young woman tasked with cleaning up this muck is Cleo, an inborn Oaxaca native now working in Mexico City. Played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, she is a meek live-in housekeeper for Antonio, a travelling doctor (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), their four children ranging from toddler to ornery pre-teen, and Sofia’s elderly mother (Verónica García). The year is 1970 and Cleo’s needed duties range from maid to caretaker across household chores at daybreak to lights-out lullabies and bedtime stories at night.

When Cleo is alone in her work or away from the doctor’s house, she brightens. Just watch Aparicio and the hushful, imaginative tracings of her performance. An occasional hummed or sung song breaks the distasteful elements of the mundanity and routines. Hopeful smiles emerge from tired eyes in natural nuance shining in the camera. The most talked-about feature film acting debut this year might be Lady Gaga, but the pop superstar cannot compete with the silent and sublime grip of Yalitza Aparicio, a face of quiet strength that can shatter granite souls.

LESSON #1: SHARED ADVERSITIES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER — Once Cleo becomes pregnant by way of an aspiring freedom fighter (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who wants nothing to do with being a father, hear and watch the grit of how her hard work becomes increasingly difficult in her fragile state. See the parallels of arduous loneliness, unspoken respect, and silent loyalty Cleo comes to share with Sofia when the truth settles in that Antonio has left the family. Unsupported, all they have is each other to hold a family together. Their increasing bond galvanized this film.

LESSON #2: THE BURDEN OF UNEXPECTED AND UNWANTED PREGNANCIES — The mental and physical fears multiply as Roma extends. Initially, the prospect of losing her job because of her condition scared Cleo without a spouse before Sofia’s family takes her in as one of their own. Going through this year by herself was already a colossal struggle yet the weeks turn into months in a city where escalating public unrest boils over with El Halconazo, the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, bracingly reenacted in the film and adding to the state of turmoil.

LESSON #3: YOUR STORY HAS CULTURE — Everyone’s family story is informed by their home and environment. Everyone’s existence, either meaningful or arbitrary, becomes defined by their ennobling lifestyle. What creates the substantial stoicism on display in Roma are the honest and honorable roots being remembered by Alfonso Cuaron. The Academy Award-winning director of Gravity sought to tell a personal story of memory free from outside scrutiny and artificiality that showcased a snapshot of his country’s and his own formative history.

LESSON #4: THE INFLUENCE OF MOTHER-FIGURES — The personal scope of Roma has been building to this platform. You see, the character of Cleo is modeled after Cuaron’s own childhood caretaker, an indigenous woman named Libo that he cherished and loved as the true woman who raised him. Like the more readily used fatherly term, mother-figures can be as important, if not more, than the real thing in every child’s journey touched by their servitude and devotion. Chronicling Libo’s plight through Cleo was restorative for the Mexican filmmaker and generates profound empathy within the viewer.

What elevates this soul-affirming private affair to yet another level of finery is Alfonso Cuaron’s tremendously pristine craft. His regular cinematographer, the three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, convinced the director to shoot Roma himself to match his memories. The result is a host of sweeping and immense imagery. Collecting urban clutter and wide vistas in slow pans and tracking shots that fill the frame with choreographed backgrounds of constant activity from edge-to-edge, Roma possesses the finest cinematography this year, all without a speck of color in sight. The visuals are merged with zero musical score and backed solely by the amplified mix of ambient noise of each setting, ranging from peaceful living quarters with barking dogs and airplanes over head to loud radios in traffic and embattled streets of protest.

Viscerally and emotionally, this cinematic exercise of harrowing gratitude is a transcendent experience debuting this week in theaters and next week on Netflix. Opening and closing nearly every scene, each of Cuaron’s long takes linger for a few extra beats before transitioning. Depending of the tone or action displayed, those added seconds freeze loving moments in time or rub painful ones in worse, both in resonating fashion to echo how life extends beyond what a camera can capture. The success of that engrossing effect of pauses is stirring and sizable, generating a cavalcade of aftershocks that will poignantly remain after the film ends. Roma stands as a tribute of integrity that goes far beyond your typical passion project label. This is Alfonso Cuaron’s unshakeable core composed and exposed for all to admire and appreciate.