Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"We are at a point where the wonders of earth and an awe in regards to nature cannot be shown often enough." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

None of the hype already surrounding the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner actually prepares you for the experience of watching this exquisitely personal universal film. Grown men, hardened movie critics, schooled in sarcasm and spite, were helplessly sobbing right next to me at the press screening for the Centerpiece selection of the 56th New York Film Festival. Alfonso Cuarón's approach to reconstructing his own middle-class childhood in Mexico City in the early 1970s, focuses so much on the way memory works.

ROMA taps into the physical nature of remembrance more remarkably than any other film I can recall: How it feels to constantly have to be aware to close the gate properly so that the dog won't get out. The sense of excitement and trepidation while swimming in the stormy ocean when you shouldn't, as the waves pull you under. Walking through mud. Cuarón allows the body to remember, with all its senses, and become part of the experience.

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Proust is ROMA's godfather. The sound design is flawless. There is the smell of an overflowing ashtray in your parents' car and that of fresh laundry drying in the sunshine. The bizarre loops that we construct between sudden, life-changing revelations in childhood and the type of ice cream we had that day. Show me a little kid who never made a cape out of a towel or a tablecloth.

The beautiful compositions of black and white images shot by Alfonso Cuarón, himself - utterly of the present within the nostalgia - provoke an avalanche of thoughts that morph with every second they stay on the screen. The title of the film refers, on the most basic level, to the neighborhood in Mexico City. It also operates like poetry. Water, a bucket, a square tile, an aeroplane reflected among the soap bubbles of the water, three cages with little birds inhabiting a courtyard we will get to know so well.

Toys are strewn everywhere in the house. They will be picked up by Cleo (newcomer revelation Yalitza Aparicio), the heroine of this tale, a housekeeper. The family she works for consists of three boys, Toño, Paco, and Pepe (Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf) and one girl, Sofi (Daniela Demesa), mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira in a marvellous complex performance), grandmother Teresa (Verónica García), and father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) who is a doctor and who excuses himself from being a part of the family fairly early on.

The character of the father is illuminated so much more poignantly than words could ever tell, by the way he squeezes the Ford into the narrow entry way for nightly parking, flattening some of the many turds left behind there by Borras, the irrepressibly energetic family dog. There is one other servant, the cook Adela (Nancy García García), with whom Cleo shares a small room in the attic of the house. Her own mother lives far away in the countryside.

Cuarón shows casually the matter-of-factness of hierarchies. In a scene, the family watches TV together, they laugh, one of the boys holds on to Cleo who watches too. The mother asks her to go and fetch something for them. It is taken for granted, that she has no say. A tiny moment, insignificant, lays it all out.

Cleo's life outside the family is soon dominated by Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young man she likes and whom she knows through Adela's boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza). Fermín likes to wear a "Love is … "T-shirt, which is rather sardonic because what he is after has little to do with love. He is proud of his martial arts prowess which will return in unexpected ways later on in the film. He also gets Cleo pregnant.

The people populating ROMA are sometimes so real that it hurts. Grandma, for example, displays an infuriating inability to help when it really matters. Her feebleness when she is needed most is an indictment for an entire system that cares very little for the the individual. How can anyone expect her to know the servant's birthday or middle name?

The politics of the time remains unexplained beyond the way they were felt by the family. A military marching band patrolling up and down the residential street or a student protest gone awry that turns violent while our protagonists are trapped in a furniture store - these are moments when the world outside briefly shows its existence.

The youngest son, Toño (little Cuarón?) likes to speak of the future in the past. "When I was old you were there," he says to his beloved Cleo, and that before he was born he was a fighter pilot. Metaphysics, movie magic, metaphorical reincarnation, whatever it is, the time twisting is so lovingly, consciously integrated into the plot that we are made to smile, thinking of the present day filmmaker, showing us this Möbius strip of his own past. That includes dress-up games as a lonely astronaut, foreshadowing Sandra Bullock's turn in Gravity.

We are at a point where the wonders of Earth and an awe in regards to nature cannot be shown often enough. Cuarón gives in abundance. There is hail and an earthquake. There are wildfires in the country during a Christmas celebration at the estate of extended family. The sequences there are rapturous, culminating in a messy conga line around the Christmas tree through an absurd taxidermy wonderland and with a scary Krampus woodland creature who sings a song while the entire gigantic clan, including dogs and toddlers, attempts to kill the flames of the fire outside. (It is an otherworldly moment, strangely reminiscent of the final rendition of The Streets of Laredo, sung by Brendan Gleeson in theBallad Of Buster Scruggs).

I love the locations and the exuberant sense of place. Haystacks straight out of a Millet painting, crashing waves from seafarer lore, glorious movie palaces, a man shot out of a cannon at a small fair in a rural settlement without paved roads. By showing us a memory, Cuarón shows us something new. The little boy is absolutely right about the nature of time. Who says it is linear?

ROMA reinvents nostalgia in the best possible way because it also strikes an unusual number of important notes on the theme of ignorance. The ignorance of kids about what is going on with the adults right in front of them rings so much truer than so many hyper-perceptive movie children want to make us believe. And maids, even when pregnant, are the ones who end up carrying in the baggage of the family.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 2018
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Chronicle of a middle-class family in the 1970s.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writer: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Verónica García, Andy Cortés, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, José Luis López Gómez

Year: 2018

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: Mexico, United States

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