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Roma

Released 2018. Director: Alfonso Cuaron

A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A DOMESTIC MAID. A canvas of laughter, disappointment and heartbreak. Alfonso Cuaron brings to vivid life childhood memories with a flow of striking imagery and empathetic storytelling. Art and life in the language of cinema, in the hands of a master at the top of his game. From its opening credit sequence of a stationary shot of water washing over floor tiles, the idea of reflection is introduced as we see the sky pooled on the floor, then a reflection of a plane gliding across, as the water flows and ebbs across the tiles. The story unfolds through the eyes of Cleo. She cooks, cleans and looks after the children of a middle-class family in Mexico City. They live in a big house with two servants, a chauffeur, three cars, and a dog in dire need of toilet training. Cleo is a young woman of gentle demeanour, soft-spoken and polite. Her routine is beautifully incorporated into the narrative. We see Cleo washing laundry by hand on the rooftop as the boys run around her playing with toy guns. She wakes and dresses the children, serves breakfast and packs them into the car for school. She cleans up around the house and sweeps up dog poo in the driveway. Cleo is more than a domestic help. She is an integral part for the proper functioning of this family. To the kids Cleo is their beloved big sister. We sense that something isn't quite right when the children's father leaves for a conference overseas and their mother Sofia appears rather emotional. Turns out that he's leaving his family behind to be with another woman and Sofia must have known. The family slowly comes apart at the top though the children are protected from this, completely unaware as they continue their blissful, boisterous existence. Meanwhile, socio-political unrest is brewing on the streets. Changes are coming inside and outside the home. Cleo finds out she's pregnant and when she tells her boyfriend, he disappears. Roma is Cuaron's ode to the women who kept the family together in a challenging time. Sofia puts on a tough front as she keeps the family together whilst trying to contact her husband through his colleagues. She shields the children and gets them to write him letters, pretending daddy is still stuck at work in Canada. Cleo, now an unwed mother-to-be, continues her daily work till the day her baby arrives unexpectedly. In a smaller capacity, the children's grandma fills in the gap providing support where she can. These are women who put children first and in Cuaron's memory they shine, in their dedication and vulnerability. Yalitza Aparicio is the undisputed discovery in this family drama. Her maiden performance brims with a quiet understanding in a multiplicity of facets - a maid doing chores, a sister protecting her younger siblings, a woman dumped by her lover, a mother torn from her newborn. Whilst Cuaron is a master in eliciting a high level of work from his cast, he is equally skilled in the language of visuals as first-time Director of Photography. Cuaron displays his vision and technique with some truly impressive sequences. The camera pans almost full circle as he introduces us to the family house, upstairs and downstairs simultaneously, an establishing shot of both scale and details. Later on, he employs the same technique to stage a simple yet strangely beautiful sequence of Cleo switching off the lights for the night. Out on the street, the camera runs parallel along the characters across shopfronts, traffic lights, crowds and cars. This is street photography in motion. Many shots are memorable but perhaps the most powerful moment comes when our vision pans from inside a furniture store to the student protest turning violent outside the window, then slowly turning back to see violence has burst into the store and someone is pointing a gun at a terrified Cleo, now suddenly going into labour as her water breaks. The long childbirth scene later is unflinching and heartbreaking in its emotional honesty. Even seeing Cleo wading out to sea is an unbearably suspenseful minute as the water gets deeper and the waves gets stronger, a simple scene that totally underscores Cuaron's instincts for directing. Roma is a triumph because it is a celebration of virtues, dedication and gratefulness. Because it shows us that heroes and inspirations in life need not come from positions of authority or power. And because, in more ways than one, it is the year's most beautiful film.

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