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From first frame to last, the semi-autobiographical Roma is a mesmerising masterpiece from one of the great filmmakers of our time, Alfonso Cuarón. Shot on the large format Alexa65 in black and white, the film looks absolutely gorgeous, its lack of colour adding colour to the narrative, allowing us to centre in on and connect with the subtly played emotional range of the actors. Perhaps this is why, for a film restrained on melodrama, it is so deeply affecting.

Alfonso Cuarón has, at the age of 57, drawn from his early memories. The film takes place in 1970 and 1971, in a neighbourhood in Mexico City, and is principally about two women. The first is Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez, fabulously played by Yalitza Aparicio, and the other is her employer, Sofia (Marina de Tavira). Cleo is a maid who lives with Sofia and her husband, Antonio, and takes care of the household and four children.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which won three Oscars two weeks ago, is available to see on Netflix but its gorgeous cinematography really deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s not just cinematography that makes it a must-watch though

Roma frames the class differences between the two by showing us how unique their similarly heartbreaking experiences are, as far as the lousy men in their lives are concerned. Interestingly, despite being drawn from the director’s childhood, the story barely explores the characters of the young ones. They are simply children, trying to negotiate the challenges of life while having as much fun as possible.

Although the family drama runs centre, Roma also gives us a taste of dirty national politics, and the brutality of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) with “gringos” (English-speaking people) pulling some strings on the side. Some of the plot’s interesting threads include sequences that show young men, including one particularly angry one, being trained in martial arts by foreigners. It is only later, in a shocking third act, do we learn that these grunts were groomed to infiltrate peaceful student protests, transforming them into a violent massacre in a tactic that may ring all too familiar.

Although the family drama runs centre, Roma also gives us a taste of dirty national politics, and the brutality of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party.

I was fortunate to catch Roma the first time on a limited release at the cinema, and my initial stance was to agree with Steven Spielberg, that films which are barely screened in theatres and are primarily distributed on streaming platforms such as Netflix should not be considered for the Academy — a visually-stunning work of this kind deserves to be experienced on the largest screen. However, as Netflix has argued, their platform allows accessibility to even cinephiles in small towns and villages. Moreover, fans in countries such as Pakistan, where the local theatres mostly run mind-numbing popcorn films from Hollywood, or the usual garbage from Bollywood (yeah, I said it), have few choices aside from Netflix for movies that aren’t developed with mass market appeal.

Admittedly, on my viewing at home, I caught some detail that I had missed out at the cinema. After all, Alfonso Cuarón’s long-panning shots, where micro-stories are told in both the foreground and background, move with such energy that Roma demands to be seen again and again. This is more so than his earlier work, including Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Children of Men (2006) and even, dare I say, Gravity (2013). Two of my favourite ones come in the latter half of the film. The first shows a pregnant character out to buy a cot, moving rapidly with quiet concern as armed police take to the streets, and shopkeepers drop their shutters in anticipation of a clash. The cinematography here is superb. The other is at the tail-end, an emotional sequence at the beach, shot in one perfectly-timed, spine-tingling take by a man at the top of his game.

Rated R for graphic nudity, disturbing images and language

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 10th, 2019