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Cuarón’s personal project

The director (left) on the sets of Roma

The director (left) on the sets of Roma   | Photo Credit: Carlos Somonte

The director’s new film is a masterpiece, delivered to our doorstep

A woman, Sofia, stands in the corridor of a villa, looking out at the night sky, lonely and heartbroken in the wake of a failed marriage. Moments later, Cleo, who is a domestic worker in Sofia’s household, replaces her on the balcony, staring into the same space, as forsaken and anguished. As she looks out, something like a swarm of fireflies apparates in front of her eyes. Slowly, though, reality hits her: it’s the embers of a fire that has engulfed a part of the forest bordering the villa.

In the next scene, the occupants of the haciendas — a mix of upper-class people celebrating New Year’s Eve, and their staff — create a human chain, passing on buckets of water that get thrown around to assuage the flames. Men, women and children gather together. All their identities disappear into the billowing smoke as they rally to survive. It’s a magical scene — and one of many single long-shots in Alfonso’s Cuarón's latest film — which leaves you transfixed by its visual brilliance while being scary and funny and absurd at the same time.

In Roma, Cuarón tells his most personal story to date: a semi-autobiographical account of the auteur’s growing-up years in a house where men are missing, and women and children cling to each other in sorrow and happiness. Cleo’s life revolves around that of her employers; she remains at the beck and call of Sofia and her ageing mother, and looks after Sofia’s four children like her own.

At the outset, Roma may seem like a film about the mundaneness of everyday life in 1970s Mexico City, reflected in Cleo’s own stillness. During the course of its 130-odd minute runtime, though, we encounter, through Cleo’s life, heart-breaking cruelty and reassuring compassion, profound acts of gratitude and unconditional love. Through tender interactions and evocative images captured in black-and-white, Cuarón captures the essence of an entire lifetime. Even with limited spaces and sparse dialogue, the filmmaker ensures scale — in craft and in telling — without ever losing the story’s intimacy.

Cuarón, also the film’s cinematographer, shoots actor Yalitza Aparicio with an admiring, caressing lens, her unresponsive outer shell holding within a mountain of emotions that always remain beyond grasp. And yet, Cleo always remains accessible to us; we can sense her empathy like we feel our own, her pain is ours, and her smile lifts our spirit just a little bit.

What’s truly spectacular is that Roma — even though a motion picture I would like to experience in all its big screen glory — is now available to us on our TV screens. The film is one of Netflix’s three acquisitions that were being looked at as strong Oscar contenders (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Bird Box are the other two) and is a true sign of the shift in consumption. Traditionalists may scoff at the downsizing of the viewing medium, but this is truly a blessed time to be alive, when masterpieces aren’t just created, but delivered to our very doorstep.

Roma is now streaming on Netflix.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 5:38:14 AM |

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