Roma (Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira) — Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most highly acclaimed international directors and writers, having won Best Director for Gravity and having been nominated for Academy Awards in the writing and adapted screenplay categories for that film and Y tu mama Tambien. The first Mexican and Hispanic-winning director in Oscar history, he weaves a slow-moving tapestry about a maid and the upper middle-class family she serves in the Roma section of Mexico City circa 1970.
Essentially, we spend a year with Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a shy, efficient domestic who is beloved by the family’s children. She, her sister and mother have served the family for years with all of the good and bad such familiarity breeds. The husband/father, a physician, is rarely around, and we subsequently find out he is about to leave permanently. The mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), one of the worst drivers in history, is loving but distraught about her husband’s departure. She treats Cleo alternately as a daughter and a servant, often depending on her mood.
As we follow Cleo, we see the bustling, less affluent part of Mexico City. We learn she has a boyfriend who is obsessed with martial arts as evidenced by a scene where he demonstrates his training skills with a curtain rod while standing completely nude in front of Cleo in an almost primal mating ritual (it was this scene that gave the film its R rating).
When Cleo realizes that she is pregnant, the movie’s pace moves from glacial to meandering. Fearing she will be fired, Cleo tells Sofia in a really touching scene where Sofia becomes maternal toward her young servant. Cleo heads out to find the father, which turns out to be a bad idea. Sophia finally tells the kids about their father’s mysterious absence. And at the denouement, Cleo is rushed to the hospital when her water breaks prematurely.
What makes Roma stand out among all the foreign language films produced in 2018 are the things most moviegoers ignore: photography, sound and art direction. Shot all in black-and-white, the camera techniques strike me as very special. The sounds are very natural, thus very un-movie-like. From the opening sequence of a tile floor with occasional water splashing to the closing credits with natural sounds as we stare at the sky, the film strikes me less as a great cinematic achievement than a well-made, human story. Gaining 10 Oscar nominations, including all of those technical categories as well as acting nominations for both women, for director, writing and best picture, Roma is not particularly special. Also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, it ought to win that category but be an also-ran for Best Picture. It is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
Finally, please note that Roma is a Netflix production so you won’t find it in theaters. Like Mudbound last year, Roma establishes a new tradition of non-traditional films making it into Oscar consideration despite only being available for home viewing. This also raises a question I posed earlier this year about what makes a movie a movie. Apparently, it isn’t that you have to go to a theater to see it any longer.