Overly Orchestrated 'Roma' Is An Epic Of Everyday Life In Mexico Critic Justin Chang says the immaculate staging of Alfonso Cuarón's new film is both an asset and a liability: "There's something curiously showy about the unshowiness of Roma."


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Overly Orchestrated 'Roma' Is An Epic Of Everyday Life In Mexico

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This is FRESH AIR. Alfonso Cuaron, who won an Oscar for directing the 2013 space epic "Gravity," returns to his Mexico City roots with "Roma," a black-and-white 1970s drama about the nanny who raised him and his siblings. This week, "Roma" won Best Picture and Cuaron was awarded Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle. The movie also won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival and is playing in select theaters before it begins streaming December 14 on Netflix. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Nearly every review I've read of Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" has insisted that you must see it on the big screen. And it's hard not to agree. You can certainly watch and appreciate this immaculately photographed movie when it hits your Netflix queue. But it's hard to imagine its immersive storytelling and virtuoso camerawork having quite the same effect. What's remarkable about "Roma" is that after the overwhelming visual spectacles of "Gravity" and "Children Of Men," Cuaron has now used a similarly big, sweeping canvas to tell the most personal of human stories. It's an intimate portrait of a Mexican middle-class family during the early 1970s inspired by the director's own memories of his childhood.

Cuaron shot the movie himself in shimmering black and white. And he presents every scene as a meticulously composed tableau. The movie is an epic of the everyday, and you can sense the influence of great neorealist filmmakers, like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. But you can also feel Cuaron the popular entertainer hard at work - staging the action in long unbroken takes and filling the frame with marvelous bits of quotidian detail.

Much of the action unfolds in a house in Mexico City's Colonia Roma district, where we see four children playing and running up and down the stairs. From the furniture to the decor, the house is a nearly exact replica of the home the director grew up in. And one of those children is presumably a stand-in for the young Cuaron himself. But the kids are not the main focus here - nor are their parents, a busy and distracted couple named Sofia and Antonio, played by Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga.

The protagonist here is the family's live-in housekeeper and nanny Cleo, an indigenous Mexican woman of Mixtec heritage played by a soulful first-time actress named Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo is a quiet, watchful presence and the glue that holds the family together. For much of "Roma," we follow her as she goes about her daily routine - gently waking up the kids each morning, hanging the family's laundry up to dry on the roof and chatting in the kitchen with her best friend in the Mixtec language.

The subtitles indicate which language is being spoken, subtly highlighting the disparities of class and ethnicity within the household. The story comes together from 100 stray threads and background details. Cleo goes out with a handsome young martial artist, but he abandons her after he learns she's carrying his child. Sofia supports Cleo through her pregnancy. But the mistress of the house has problems of her own. She and the rarely seen Antonio are going through a separation.

Occasionally the business of everyday life intersects with the broader historical and political context, as when Cuaron recreates the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre in which more than 100 student protesters were killed by army soldiers. Cleo watches the horrors unfold from the window of a furniture store where she has gone to purchase a crib for her baby. It's a stunning piece of choreography, one of many throughout the movie. And I don't mean that entirely as a compliment. I can't remember the last time I wrestled as much with a movie I admired as much as "Roma." I wish that more Hollywood directors would work in this austere, observant mode, patiently building an entire world around their characters and gently, unobtrusively drawing you in.

But there's something curiously showy about the un-showiness of "Roma." The pristine quality of the visuals begins to feel lofty and self-admiring. It's a movie that never lets you forget how exquisitely directed it is. For my money, Cuaron's masterpiece remains his earlier Mexican production "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which seemed to stumble on its razor-sharp insights into class, race, privilege and oppression as if by accident. I'm not suggesting that "Roma" would have been better as a raucous sex comedy - only that by comparison, it feels as if it's been orchestrated to within an inch of its life.

Cuaron has conceived "Roma" as a valentine to the real-life Cleo. Her name is Liboria Rodriguez, and Cuaron consulted her extensively for research. But for all the sharpness of this movie's visuals and the richness of the details, there's something about Cleo and the world she inhabits that never comes into focus. Aparicio gives a deeply moving performance as Cleo, and Cuaron could hardly be more attuned to her feelings, frustrations and desires. He clearly loves this character. But both times I saw "Roma," I couldn't shake the feeling that he loves his images more.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, we talk about the life and career of actor Rock Hudson with Mark Griffin, who has written a comprehensive new biography of the handsome leading man in Douglas Sirk films, action films and in popular romantic comedies. He lived a double life as a closeted gay man. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


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