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Here’s What Critics Are Saying About Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

Alfonso Cuarón directs Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo on the set of Roma.
Alfonso Cuarón directs Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo on the set of Roma.
Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s much anticipated Netflix debut Roma premiered at the Venice Film Festival today, and it appears to have lived up to the hype—at least according to reactions from the lucky few who have seen it (and hyped it some more). The semi-autobiographical black-and-white film portrays a year in the life of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City, focused on one of its housekeepers, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous Mexican woman based on Cuarón’s own babysitter. Cuarón based the film on memories, and even used some of his own childhood furniture in the film.

Although Roma was shot on 65mm celluloid, one critic suggested some of the film’s power might be lost on the small screen. Netflix has not announced a streaming release date, but is giving the film a limited theatrical release on December 14—just in time for awards season eligibility. Some are suggesting Roma might win Netflix its first Best Picture nomination, and with the movie being shown at the Toronto and New York film festivals in the next couple of months, you can predict more predictions where those came from. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

The Mexico City of the 1970s is captured in exquisite, heartbreaking detail…

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

The title refers to the director’s belief that Mexico City has been evolving in the four decades since into a non-imperial grandiosity, a quasi-Rome in its commotion and sprawl, and the streetscape and crowd-scene sequences Cuarón stages are truly stunning, especially his sensational evocation of the Corpus Christi massacre, when around 120 people were killed by the military during a student demonstration.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

[T]he movie is so naturalistic that it’s like a dramatized documentary. At the same time, Cuarón turns his camera-eye gaze into something heady and aestheticized. He dunks us, moment by moment, image by luminously composed image, into a panorama of the hurly-burly of Mexico City in 1970 and 1971 — the glinting squalor of the streets, the Americanized fragments of pop culture (Creedence vs. the Beatles!), the tatters of class war.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

Roma also excels at operating as a traditional period piece, grappling with a Mexico swept up in the fervor of 1968 activism and an influx of popular culture. Snippets of television and movies come and go, striking a cartoonish juxtaposition to the cycle of everyday life.

…in which the viewer is utterly immersed.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

Cuarón, make no mistake, has done this entirely by design. He presents life in the unruly Mexican metropolis as an immersive experience, a you-are-there trance-out.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

The sophistication of his Dolby Atmos sound design (which viewers of this Netflix release will want to experience in a theater) leads to immersive environments that emphasize how Cleo inhabits a busy world much larger than her interpersonal issues. On more than one occasion, the effect builds to apocalyptic extremes when the arrival of natural forces overwhelm the soundtrack to a shocking degree.

The memory-based film is driven not by plot, but by characters and scenes.

Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter:

It becomes clear soon enough that Cuaron’s stance here is that of a poetic curator of memories. The shimmering, silvery monochromatic images summon up moments and experiences with crystalline vividness.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

Roma is the rare movie in no hurry to reveal what it’s about. … Alfonso Cuarón’s first project in his native Mexico since Y Tu Mamá También, Roma has more in common with that movie’s character-based storytelling than any of the bigger productions he’s made since. … Roma assembles its narrative out of small moments, as the director’s camera pans slowly through various scenes to soak in the distinctive locale, while dispensing tidbits of story details from unlikely places.

Robbie Collin, the Telegraph:

The film is so sensually attuned to the routines of daily life—the swish of soapy water across courtyard tiles, the uneasy growl of a car’s engine as it inches into a too-slim parking spot—that the larger plot, involving an unplanned pregnancy and a romantic betrayal, all but steals in unannounced.

Every one of those scenes is gorgeously shot…

Robbie Collin, the Telegraph:

But every individual scene feels filled with the lucid detail of a formative recollection or a recurring dream: a gun clutched menacingly in the foreground of an execution during the city’s Corpus Christi riots of 1971, a man singing during a forest fire, while crowds rush to extinguish the blaze behind him, and sparks swarm up into the night. Roma is made of the stuff of memory…

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

Every scene, every character and every shot has been nurtured with loving care. There are lovely set-pieces when the family, uneasily without their patriarch at Christmas, visit an uncle—whose clan have a hair-raising love of guns and go cheerfully off for a shooting spree, with minimal warnings on safety. A New Year’s party in the country is interrupted by a dramatic forest fire—Cleo is the first to see the shimmering heat above the dark shapes of the trees, and it looks at first like a hallucination.

… by Cuarón himself, who serves as his own brilliant cinematographer.

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

Cuarón has an extraordinary way of combining the closeup and the wide-shot, the tellingly observed detail – humorous or poignant or just effortlessly authentic—with the big picture and the sense of scale. At times it feels novelistic, a densely realised, intimate drama giving us access to domestic lives developing in what feels like real time. … The street scenes are extraordinarily good, and use terrific tracking shots. Even the film’s simplest and most apparently innocuous episodes are electrified by the pure style that Cuarón brings.

Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter:

[T]he director here relies upon the use of slow lateral pans to move from one event to another. This creates the opposite effect of quick cutaways and reaction shots, producing instead a feeling of the continuity of life, an indication of one experience or encounter leading to another, of everything being related, an establishment of certain events that will ultimately lead to a repository of permanent memories as opposed to evanescent ones.

The children are slightly undeveloped as characters, but it may not matter…

Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter:

If one thing is missing in Roma, it’s the individuation of the family’s children. They’re always busy doing this or that, most often in groups and in motion, a swirl of young faces rather than kids who do anything to uniquely define themselves; you could pass the young actors on the street after seeing the movie and likely not even recognize them. In this sense, it’s not much of a film about childhood or growing up but, rather, a portrait of two women whose lives are dominated by the same children.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

These sort of devices help Roma escape some of its tidier plot points, as well as the underdevelopment of the child characters who remain so central to Cleo’s life. Even the Cuarón stand-in lacks much personality. But that coming-of-age story has been told innumerable times in various contexts, and Cuaron’s wise to realize that Cleo’s has not.

… because the film is about Cleo, a compelling character, compellingly portrayed by Yalitza Aparacio.

Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter:

Even if Sofia finally emerges with plenty to say in the climactic sequences, Cleo occupies the film’s emotional ground zero. By any conventional dramatic standard, she’s a personality void: passive, without opinions or knowledge. … And yet that’s what makes Cuaron’s decision to place her at the center of his autobiographical film so unusual and compelling: She’s the usually forgotten figure who here has been very much remembered, a decision that seems both personal and political. She’s the lost, normally anonymous figure—the maid, servant, underling—who here ever-so-tentatively emerges as the figure to whom, for the future’s sake, attention must be paid.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

Cleo is the central figure of Roma, yet for most of the film she barely says a word. She’s stoic and dutiful, with a wide face that suggests a statue of humble rectitude, and the fact that she loves this family as her own is presented without question. Speaking in her native Mixtec, Yalitza Aparacio, a non-professional actress, makes Cleo a doleful earth mother with a deep presence, a kind of working-class saint — and, tellingly, a woman with problems she feels compelled to weather without protest.

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

At the heart of it all is a wonderful performance from Aparicio, who brings to the role something gentle, delicate, stoic and selfless. She is the jewel of this outstanding film.