Alfonso Cuarón had the power to choose whatever project he wanted. After the success of Gravity, studios should’ve lined up to see what the director would create next. That was until he explained what he would be making. Roma sees Cuarón making a rough autobiography of his own childhood. He had a specific vision in mind for how he wanted to tell this story. He would present it in black and white, rely on two foreign languages, and feature a cast comprising first time and little-known actors. It would be a huge gamble for whatever studio that would release it. Except for Netflix.
Roma and Netflix are irrevocably connected. The company was looking for a picture that could compete for the highest film honors, and Cuarón needed someone to fund his project. Netflix now has a legitimate award-worthy film, one that should be seen on the biggest screen possible. Cuarón has made his most personal film yet, painting his vision of Mexico as a dream.
When water splashes across tile during the opening credits of Roma, the striking black and white imagery pops off the screen. It feels organic to the entire process, not a ploy to create something different. The challenge was felt by the set designers. Finding proper colors and materials for the image to feel rich was a unique problem. One that they seemed up to conquer. Cuarón was the credited cinematographer for Roma, which is a change from his usual process. He usually works with the three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, but something tied him up. Even without Chivo, Cuarón channels his collaborator’s technique creating some incredible imagery. Roma is focused on the two leads; it is through the camera we see the changes in Mexico. It’s a unique perspective because it captures the images as if Cuarón was navigating through a dream. Big sweeping movements make the camera free-floating through the past. The camera acts as a character itself in this way.
Roma follows the lives of two women during the height of the Mexican Dirty War. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. She is close to the children, having cared for them for most of their lives. For fun, she dates Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). They go to movies together, and he showcases his interest in martial arts to win her over. Cleo’s relationship with Fermin goes a little further than she expected. She learns that she is pregnant with his child and it is something that neither of them is expecting. She has to endure this new reality and her anxiety towards the future.
Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is trying to keep her family together. Her husband, a doctor, says he has to go on a business trip and won’t be back for a while. She becomes frustrated with her housekeeper Cleo because of her fears regarding her marriage. Her world is turning upside down because the family caretaker might not be coming back home and she has these children to care for. Not only will be hard to make a living, but the troubled relationship makes her doubt her potency as a woman.
Cuarón took a different approach to the autobiography than expected. By focusing on this unique story of two women, he could dig into the lives of the women during that period, while simultaneously conveying the era in which he grew up. It was a time of 8-track tapes, the movie that inspired Gravity (Marooned), and the Corpus Christi Massacre. The massacre comes during a vital part of the film and shows how Mexico is changing in significant ways whether the characters are ready.
Unlike his two most recent films, Children of Men and Gravity, Roma is a personal story Cuarón couldn’t have made any other way. By collaborating with Netflix, he could go in a direction that made sense for his picture, allowing him to summon the story of a Mexico he remembers. It is a stunning achievement of cinema and is not only the best film Netflix has released, but it is Cuarón’s crowning achievement. Roma is a journey not to be missed.