I knew very little about Roma before watching it. I knew that it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón who has directed many well-respected films and that it is in Spanish, set in Mexico, and also that it is nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar and a best picture Oscar among others (ten total nominations). When I spoke to people who had seen it, their responses were distilled to one adjective: beautiful.
When I don’t know much about a film before I watch it, I often like to keep it that way. It is a rare and delightful thing to be surprised by a movie.
Immediately, I was drawn in by the—to use a clichéd term by now—beauty of the film. I will be incredibly surprised and disappointed if Roma doesn’t win the cinematography Academy Award. Obviously, Cuarón’s films are known for their compelling cinematography but the allure of this one is definitely amplified (it’s also Cuarón’s first cinematography credit since 1990).
The story follows an upper-middle class family in Mexico who is struggling with the abandonment of the husband and father, a researcher/doctor who suddenly finds that he prefers the company of a much younger woman to his wife and four young children. The narrative is primarily viewed from the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) the nanny who, over the course of the film, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend and is promptly abandoned by him. There is clearly a theme of men abandoning women with the responsibilities they have helped to create.
Everything about this film is good: the writing, the performances, the directing, the aforementioned cinematography. The setting is gorgeous. Characters are complicated and don’t always behave the way you want them to but they behave realistically.
Some of it is brutally, unexpectedly devastating. I don’t remember the last time a movie made me cry so hard. In most other movies I would crankily call the stillbirth scene a kind of suffering porn, designed specifically to wrench hearts and win nominations. But it doesn’t come across that way in Roma. Because to rest of the movie is realistic and treats its subjects with such tenderness, it’s hard to imagine Cuarón using them for awards fodder.
I really don’t have a bad thing to say about this film. I would like to watch it a few more times because I get the sense that there is a lot I missed that can get picked up in subsequent viewings.
Other foreign films have been nominated for both best picture and best foreign language film but none have won both. Before having watched it I was skeptical at its chances of winning best picture but I now think it has a chance. If there’s any film worthy of winning in both categories, it’s this one.
What to make: I really wanted to recommend pulque, an ancient drink which is made from fermented agave sap. In Roma, a woman encourages Cleo to have a drink and offers her mezcal but Cleo protests that it’s bad for the baby and accepts pulque instead. However, a drunk dancer bumps into her, causing her to drop and break her glass. Pulque is having a bit of a resurgence in Mexico as a quintessentially Mexican drink, as its history predates the arrival of the Spanish. It was once considered the drink of the Aztec gods. Given these weighty associations with the drink, Cleo’s broken glass was probably a bad omen for the future of her unborn child. I
Unfortunately, you really need to drink pulque fresh, or it gets slimy (apparently it’s kind of slimy already—I’ve never had it but after reading so much about it I want to). If you can find good-quality bottled pulque then that would be a great choice, but it’s unlikely. Otherwise, I’d go with mezcal.