Film Review – Roma
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) plays like a magic trick. At first, we wonder where he is going with his story, but slowly, he peels back the layers to reveal a tapestry full of all the nuances of life. The good, the bad, the joy, the heartbreak, the hopes, the disappointments – it’s a collage of all the minute details juxtaposed with grand, sweeping moments. It’s rare for a film to put me in such a haze in the first fifteen minutes, and in the final fifteen leave me convinced that it’s one of the best of the year. One of the great pleasures watching movies is being allowed to peer into the lives of those who are unlike ourselves and to discover the connections that bind us. And in that way, Cuarón has a crafted something that is purely, assuredly human.
One of Cuarón’s greatest strengths is in his ability to take what seems to be a small story and place it in the middle of a whirlwind of larger ideas. Children of Men (2006) examined a character who rediscovered his purpose in the midst of social and political upheaval. Roma operates much in the same fashion. In the center is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a servant to a middle class family that employs her in Mexico City in the early 1970s. But as her and the family’s story play out, we get hints and discoveries peering in from the edges of the frame: protests and riots, and a military presence that always seem to be lingering. We also witness the extreme economic disparities – from the wealth and comfort of the upper classes to the slums of those struggling day by day.
This is all captured in exquisite, deliberate camerawork. Cuarón (who not only writes, directs, and co-edits, but is also the credited cinematographer) shoots in stark, black and white photography. His camera movements are minimalistic, opting for slow pans left and right, or smooth tracking shots that follow characters as they make their way from one location to the next. It’s a deliberate style that forces us to consider the composition of the frame, and what Cuarón decides to show and what to leave out. It’s as though this time and place, depicted with a dreamlike quality, isn’t so much an accurate representation of a Mexico City that actually existed, but one that exists in Cuarón’s memory.
The main narrative thread acts as a slice of Cleo’s life. We see her doing chores, cleaning, interacting with the kids, and tending to the needs of their mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother (Veronica Garcia). They all live in a gated home where the garage is so narrow that parking the family car is a daily ordeal – not only do they have to avoid scraping the walls but also the abundant dog droppings littered all around. And this is what we mostly experience early on, the seemingly mundane life Cleo and the family go through.
As time passes, however, the more we start to realize that Cleo’s life mirrors much of what is going on within the family, particularly Sofia. Cleo enters into a relationship with a young man named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who abruptly leaves her hanging high and dry. The same can be said about Sofia, whose physician husband (Fernando Grediaga) tells the family that he’s leaving for a conference, but when he never comes back leaves behind questions regarding his true intentions. Through a year we see both Cleo and Sofia dealing with the circumstances they are put in, trying to find the strength to persevere despite all the changes that are happening to them personally and to Mexico City.
That’s the extent of the “plot.” The rest involves these characters going through various episodes of random events – vacations, get togethers, holiday parties, road trips – all the things that families do. This may not sound exciting in writing, and yet the more we get to understand these people, the more invested we become in them. The black and white photography matched with a story unconcerned with a three-act structure makes Roma feel like a neo-realist tale. Yalitza Aparicio’s effective, understated performance works with a subtle effectiveness. Here is a character whose emotions are held at bay for much of the runtime, only to spill out during an incredible climactic moment near the end (I dare not reveal this to you). Marina de Tavira is also excellent as the emotional counterpoint to Aparicio. Sofia plays more like a traditional, dramatic character that we’re used to seeing, but that does not make her any less believable. She does not get as much screen time as Cleo, but that allows the moments we do get to be all the more powerful. Sofia’s arc is one that develops gradually, if you’re not paying attention you might miss how dynamic and well-rounded she is.
Cuarón bookends Roma with a shot of an airplane flying across the sky. This points toward the world beyond what these characters see and hear. Maybe that is Cuarón trying to bring us into a more intimate level with him, to share his world through this story. I’m not Mexican, I’ve never been in these people’s shoes before, and yet I felt touched by them and the spaces they inhabit. For a brief moment, I was standing next them, living out their experiences by their side. When you get a feeling like that, that is when you know you’ve watched great cinema.