Argentine helmer Adolfo Aristarain turns a compassionate eye toward his own spiritual and political education in the rangy, quietly affecting and rewardingly intense “Roma,” his most achieved work to date. Lengthy, but not over-long, rites-of-passage yarn takes one young man’s life as the focal point for the struggles which tore Argentina apart in the late ’60s and ’70s, as well as being an homage to the dangerous pleasures of self-discovery. Film garnered positive reactions at home on its spring release and has the emotional coherence to strike universal chords offshore. Fest dates are a certainty.
Manuel Cueto (Juan Diego Botto) is hired by a publishing house to transcribe the memoirs of novelist Joaquin Gonez (Jose Sacristan). When he arrives at Joaquin’s country house near Madrid, Manuel finds the grizzled man to be an embittered figure who’s published nothing for six years. Manuel is smart enough to make the writer start to warm to him.
Script is largely comprised of flashbacks as Joaquin begins to remember. His first recollections are of his almost too-perfect ’50s childhood (played by Agustin Garvie) in a suburban Buenos Aires barrio alongside his classical pianist father (Gustavo Garzon) and piano teacher mother, Roma (Susu Pecoraro).
Free-thinking liberals, his parents inculcate Joaquin with their bohemian beliefs — but significantly, it is Brahms rather than be-bop that the aging Joaquin prefers to listen to. When his father unexpectedly dies, Joaquin has to go it alone along with Roma, who tries a couple of unsuccessful relationships before deciding to dedicate herself to Joaquin’s well-being.
By the late ’60s, with a military dictatorship in place, home life for Joaquin and Roma is ever more complex. Joaquin (also played by Botto) has abandoned his studies for the bohemian life, hanging out with jazz and lit buffs like g.f. Betty (Carla Crespo) and Guido Rossi (Maximiliano Ghione) and setting about becoming a writer. (The script is heavy with the modish cultural refs of the time.)
One day, escaping from a street demonstration that’s been hijacked by the military, Joaquin meets university student Renee (Marcela Kloosterboer). They begin a relationship whose conclusion drives him to the first major emotional crisis of his life, which sends him scurrying back to mom. Unfortunately for all concerned, Joaquin finds solace in the arms of Guido’s wife, Alicia (Marina Glezer).
Here, the film slows down dramatically and the script drifts too close to the will-they/won’t-they cliches of standard romancers, with the bigger social picture temporarily fading from view. Final reels are set in Madrid, following Joaquin’s exile.
Pic is heavily character-based, and the thesps deliver across the board, with the thoughtful script taking time to open the lives of even marginal characters. Among the main perfs, the beating heart of the pic is Susu Pecoraro as Roma, fine as a young, happily married woman but stunning as the premature widow who’s decided to hand over her life to her son’s future. Sacristan, nowadays rarely seen on screen, is likewise gripping.
The role of the younger Joaquin is more problematic. Botto is one of the finer of Spain’s younger generation of actors, but Joaquin’s passivity, combined with his sense of self-importance, makes him less than engaging through pic’s middle sections. However, the wheeze of having Botto play both the younger Joaquin and Manuel is logical, suggesting Joaquin is giving life-lessons to his younger self.
Period detail is well recreated by art director Jorge Ferrari and lenser Jose Luis Alcaine. Spot-on visual refs signal this is the stuff of autobiography, not invention.