If someone gave you the opportunity to recreate your childhood home as an exact replica, then fill it with actors cast with likenesses much like your family, how would you move those actors through space? If you’re Alfonso Cuarón, you do it by keeping one thesis front and centre: focus on the women who shaped you. What this decorated director has been able to do with his latest project, Roma (due for Netflix streaming this week), is so masterful that it belongs in a category of rare achievement. Looking back on the many movies screened in 2018, I can’t say any film stayed with me as much as this one— it features the most epic scene of the year but no spoilers here. It sent me home from the theatre to peer deeply at our own culture, where women like the nanny, Cleo, dot households across North America. As portrayed beautifully in the film by Yalitza Aparicio (a real-life preschool teacher and novice actor), Cleo is the heart of a family in turmoil, providing constancy and continuity in a mad world.
Cuaron(speaking to those of us lucky to see this film on a big screen at TIFF earlier this past September), told us he spent many hours interviewing his childhood nanny as part of his research so that he would get it right. Along the way, as we move with his protagonist performing her many daily domestic duties; bestowing love on a family of four children, Cuaron paints stunning scenes of intricate detail and avoids nothing; political events are part of this tapestry while never overwhelming it. The camera sweeps and we receive in a slow build of absolute immersion.
What is most startling about Roma is what is missing: there are no recognizable stars, no overblown budgets, no heavy-handed arrows pointing us to facile conclusions, nor is this narrative laden with syrupy nostalgia-tinged speeches or soundtracks. Memory is a most excellent tour guide here as an observer of universal truths about social class. Indeed, Cleo’s role in the household, like millions of others, brings to mind an award-winning Atlantic essay from years ago, an essay that, at the time, reworked for me the very idea of feminism, and gave new urgency to my personal sense of identity. In her cover story, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement, Caitlin Flanagan wrote:
The precise intersection of many women’s most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day.
Cuarón’s work here may capture a year of his life back in the early ’70s but this is surely the year’s most relevant film, just as it is miles ahead artistically of anything else released this year. Roma will both awaken your spirit and break your heart as great works of art can do.
Note: This pristine gorgeous work is hardly usual fare for Netflix and I fear some of the deliberate pacing will lose swaths of viewers who can pause a film at their leisure. Yet how else to ensure the film be seen in the most democratic fashion? This month, Netflix confirmed that Roma will be released in more than 600 theatres internationally at the same time as the December 14th launch on Netflix. It is also winning awards: this week, the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Roma best movie of the year. It has also been named the best film of 2018 by critics’ groups in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Roma could make history as the first Netflix film to be up for best picture when the Oscar nominations are announced on 22 January.
My Scrumptious Films list from TIFF 2018