WASHINGTON — He burst onto the scene with the sexy coming-of-age road movie “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), helmed one of the best “Harry Potter” chapters in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), transfixed us with long takes in the apocalyptic “Children of Men” (2006) and delivered the greatest 3D film ever made in the 90-minute sci-fi panic attack “Gravity” (2013).
This weekend, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón delivers his most personal work yet in “Roma,” an intimate, poetic portrait inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood in 1970 Mexico City.
The film follows a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as a maid for a middle-class family run by single mom Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who teams with grandmother Teresa (Verónica García) to raise four kids in spite of their absent father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Along the way, Cleo chills with boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and double dates with fellow maid Adela (Nancy García) and her boyfriend Pepe (Marco Graf).
The biggest treat is watching the breakout performance of first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio.
“It’s the first movie I’ve ever made,” Aparicio told WTOP. “I never even studied to become an actress. Actually, I had just graduated to become a teacher, and not even a month after, I was invited to be a part of this project that radically changed my life. I started visiting all of these wonderful places that I never imagined and meeting all of these wonderful people.”
She admits that she hadn’t even heard of Cuarón before the project.
“I didn’t have a clue about who Alfono Cuarón was,” Aparicio said. “It was once I was in the shooting that I found out about his job and his trajectory and everything, but I didn’t get to see any of the films until the very end. [Now, I’ve seen them] and I find them wonderful, especially ‘Children of Men.’ I noticed he has these long takes but with a lot of movement.”
You’ll find similar long-takes throughout “Roma,” dollying down the sidewalk, entering the ocean surf and panning across the clotheslines of Mexico City’s urban exteriors, all captured in some of the most gorgeous black-and-white cinematography you’ll ever see.
“It helped to awaken all these emotions at once instead of little by little,” Aparicio said.
Cuarón’s eye is apparent from the opening shot, as mop suds spill across tile pavement as a water reflection captures an airplane overhead. Not only does the reflection symbolize Cuarón’s own childhood memories — literally reflecting — it sets up a symbolic motif of water. This comes full circle when Cleo’s water breaks for a doomed pregnancy, then again in the emotional finale as waves crash for a heroic act where Cleo completes her character arc.
“I think it has to do with some type of guilt and feeling this remorse that she didn’t accept the baby situation and being pregnant,” Aparicio said. “As soon as she knew, tragedy started unleashing. Then she realized in the beach scene that she was about to lose these kids that she loved as her own also. So, it makes her feel that, yes, somehow it closes the circle.”
It’s a satisfying conclusion for a slow-burn film that recalls the Italian Neorealist movement. This ain’t no quick-cutting superhero flick; it’s meant for the art-house crowd; pack your patience for Spanish subtitles. The goal is a slice-of-life character study rather than plot twists, but if you flip your mental switch, it’s a subtly enveloping film that elicits nostalgia.
You’ll also find a few moments of surprising comedy, particularly the running joke of Señora Sofia banging up the family car by repeatedly wedging it in their narrow alley driveway.
“I don’t know how to drive,” Aparicio said. “When Sofia crashes the car, I love to see how calm she was. She was taking it so easy! When she crashed it in the house or when she crashes it between the two buses, she’s so calm. She couldn’t care less about the car being ruined.”
There’s also a bizarre scene with Cleo’s boyfriend nakedly swinging a shower curtain rod like a kendo stick. The scene initially appears out of place, but it pays off later when Cleo watches him train at an outdoor martial arts class that builds toward violent protests. This political backdrop of the real-life uprising comes to a head at the climax but never overpowers what the film is at its core: an intimate story of a nanny’s acceptance with her host family.
“My favorite scene is Cleo is singing the lullaby to the little girl,” Aparicio said. “She takes care of it as if it was her own. Viewers are able to see the great attention she pays to the children.”
Indeed, she’s nurturing children on screen the way she originally intended to as a teacher. Now, as an acclaimed actress, she’s traveling the festival circuit watching “Roma” win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival and the Silver Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival. More recently, the film opened the Middleburg Film Festival, where D.C. area critics first saw it and later voted it Best Film by the Washington Area Film Critics Association.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” Aparicio said. “I never ever thought about this. I was very naive. I thought that when we finished the film, at some point we were going to gather all of us in a movie theater, watch the film, go home and wait for it to come out and open in the theaters. When I was told I had to go to Venice, I couldn’t believe it. I was not expecting it at all. But I’ve been very happy to go to all these wonderful places and meet all these wonderful people.”
Now, it’s destined to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and possibly Best Director. Its Best Picture hopes might be thwarted by the same anti-streaming bias that harmed Dee Rees’ masterpiece “Mudbound” (2017) last year. Both are Netflix productions that draw skepticism from older Academy voters, who tend to favor flicks like “A Star is Born” and “Green Book.” Still, putting the Oscar race aside, “Roma” is an art-house gem by Cuarón.
“He’s a person that is always helping you give the best you can give and believe that you can do things and that you should never settle for anything,” Aparicio said. “I also believe that he pours his heart out into his projects in such a way because they are so important to him.”
Listen to our full conversation with “Roma” actress Yalitza Aparicio below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Yalitza Aparicio (Full Interview)