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(2018) (Yalitza Aparicio, Marina De Tavira) (R)

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Drama: A Mexican housekeeper must not only contend with the increasingly strained marriage of her employers, but also ending up pregnant by a guy who then hits the road.
Cleo (YALITZA APARICIO) and Adela (NANCY GARCÍA GARCÍA) are housekeepers for a wealthy family in Mexico City. The patriarch, Sr. Antonio (FERNANDO GREDIAGA), is a doctor who's away from home for weeks at a time, leaving his wife, Sra. Sofía (MARINA DE TAVIRA), and her mother, Sra. Teresa (VERÓNICA GARCÍA), to watch over the couple's four kids -- Toño (DIEGO CORTINA AUTREY), Paco (CARLOS PERALTA), Pepe (MARCO GRAF), and Sofi (DANIELA DEMESA).

When the two housekeepers aren't busy working for the family, they enjoy spending time with their boyfriends -- Ramón (JOSÉ MANUEL GUERRERO MENDOZA) who's dating Adela and Fermín (JORGE ANTONIO GUERRERO) who's sleeping with Cleo. That latter relationship results in Cleo ending up pregnant, with Fermín then hitting the road upon learning of this development. From that point on, Cleo must not only contend with that, but also her employers' increasingly rocky marriage.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Have you ever seen something that's pretty or maybe even beautiful but otherwise thought it was all flash and little substance, leaving you with an "Is that all there is?" impression and response? But then the memories of those images kept coming back to you, as if haunting your psyche?

If so, you'll know exactly how I felt both while watching "Roma" and now nearly a week after having viewed it for award consideration. It's considered one of the Oscar front-runners for Best Picture and its director is certainly no stranger to critical and award love.

And that would none other than Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican filmmaker who received an Oscar win for Best Director for his work on "Gravity" while that flick and his others have racked up a total of seven wins out of eighteen cumulative nominations.

Here, the writer/director backs off the larger scale of his previous efforts like that Sandra Bullock film, "Children of Men" and especially "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" to tell a far more intimate tale inspired by him growing up with his real-life nanny, Liboria "Libo" Rodríguez, to whom the movie is dedicated.

Named for the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, the story -- set in 1970-- revolves around a domestic worker, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for a doctor (Fernando Grediaga), his wife (Marina de Tavira), and her mother (Verónica García) in caring for the couple's four children (played by Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf and Daniela Demesa) and handling housekeeping duties alongside her coworker (Nancy García García). And for the first twenty or thirty minutes, all we see is typical, everyday ordinary stuff in such a household.

So much so that I can't recall a single thing that occurs during that span (aside from the opening that shows a close-up of carport driveway tiles having cleaning water running across them). But I do remember checking my watch repeatedly in disbelief that I was watching a black and white, period piece example of Jerry and George's "show about nothing" pitch in the old "Seinfeld" sitcom.

At around that point, I started to think that all of the critical acclaim I had heard swirling about the film was nothing more than highfalutin film critics extolling their inherent love and admiration for anything that looks like an old Fellini film (meaning in black and white, with subtitles and with the inherent need to read something -- anything -- into the suspected symbolism that must be hidden within all of the pretty frames).

Thankfully, at least for viewers craving something resembling a story but obviously not for her, our unassuming protagonist finds herself pregnant by a young man (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who seems to enjoy showing off his martial arts prowess while buck naked in front of her. Not surprisingly, he hits the road, all while a subplot revolves around the other couple's marriage starting to unravel not just due to the husband always being away from home, but that said "work" was actually a cover for his infidelity.

And beyond some of the characters briefly ending up in the midst of a protest that turns violent, that's really about it for the story. But the film is just so gosh darn pretty -- thanks to Cuaron's direction and his incredibly beautiful cinematography -- that you sort of forgive the lack of much of anything resembling a full-fledged plot.

So much so that many of those images from those scenes where nothing really notable occurs started coming back to me and haunting my memory like little I've seen this year. And while I earlier somewhat mockingly commented on pretentious reviewers finding symbolism where none really exists, the filmmaker does put in both subtle and not so subtle bits, the latter including a local movie theater showing the disaster in space movie from 1969, "Marooned."

While the inclusion of a film about astronauts ending up, yes, marooned away from Earth might sound like an odd addition to such a story about a pregnant Mexican housekeeper, it's there to represent -- I'm assuming -- the woman being marooned in her job while pregnant and with her baby daddy having hit the road upon such news. That would seem to go hand-in-hand with repeated shots of jets flying way overhead, presumably representing privileged people "escaping" from whatever their current situation might be, whereas she's stuck.

And thus the film somewhat vexes me in that the lack of much of a story means some or maybe even a lot of everyday viewers will grow bored and quit watching before the 135-minute runtime is up. But art-house aficionados and most critics will fall prey, like me, to the mesmerizing and apparently haunting look and feel of the production that has yet to leave my memory whereas other films I've seen have long since disappeared into the void. Accordingly, I might have to watch it again to get a better sense of the quality of the overall production, but with just one pass through "Roma," I give it a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2018 / Posted December 7, 2018

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