TIFF Review: ‘Roma’ is a Masterpiece

There are directors who like to stick with their strengths — or what they perceive to be their strengths. Then there are directors who like to keep trying new things and in the process keep challenging themselves. Alfonso Cuaron certainly belongs to the latter kind. After making an almost perfect space film in the form of Gravity, Cuaron could have very easily helmed a studio film and cashed a fat check for himself. But instead he went in diametrically opposite direction and made his most personal film till date. A film so personal that it feels as if Cuaron has shot a vivid slice of his childhood memories and offered it to us. ‘Roma’ will startle you with its honesty. It will amuse you to see how the most personal experiences are also the most universal. So, don’t be surprised if you find many of your own childhood memories similar to Cuaron’s. It’s fascinating how we try to separate ourselves based on ethnicity or nationality or color of skin, but deep down we all are just the same: humans.

‘Roma’ follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as a live-in maid and nanny for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Roma district. The family consists of grandmother, mother, father and four children. When the father, who is the patriarch of the family, departs to be with his mistress, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left devastated. Cleo, who is loved by all the children, helps Sofia and the kids through a period of difficulty. She, meanwhile, has also been dumped by her boyfriend when he discovers she is pregnant. That means, she now has the double responsibility of taking care of the children and herself. Everything seemed to be back on track, when one day, in the midst of political unrest, Cleo is hit with a tragedy. Despite the grief, Cleo has no other option but to serve the family.

Roma is a Cuaron’s tribute to his childhood maid — film ends with a note “For Lido” that makes it quite clear. Though, I read the film more as his homage to all the resilient women. This is evident in a long, one take, excruciating delivery scene, in which Cuaron unflinchingly shows the physical pain women have to endure when giving birth. It is a scene that is extremely powerful, but uncomfortable to watch. Cuaron seems to be making a clear point here: if it is so painful for you to just watch, imagine the pain of the women who have to endure it. In a way he is trying to tell us that he owes his existence to the sacrifices of his maid and mother.

Roma is also a subtle critic of the ethnic and class divisions that exist in Mexico — and many other places in the world. The fact that he chose to make a film about his maid — and not about himself — tells you that he wanted to make a statement about the societal disparities. The contrasting lives of the maids and the family living under the same roof is both eye-opening and heart-rending.

Apart from the storytelling, the technical aspects of the film also stand out. Shot on 65mm in black and white, Roma is immersive and beautiful. The images in the film are meticulously crafted and will remain indelibly etched on your mind. Cuaron has once again proved that he is both a gifted technician and a master storyteller.

Rating: 5/5