Director Alfonso Cuarón has synthesized the best elements of his career to date for his latest film Roma, a touching, ethereal masterpiece. The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, like elements from his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También. Just like his visually stunning work in Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón’s absolute mastery of the cinematic techniques of camera movement and framing are also on display in this film. What sets Roma apart, though, is its lyrical, contemplative mode of storytelling. Those elements are present even in Cuarón’s most anxiety-inducing picture, Gravity, but the director is exploring them more fully here. Roma is emotionally complex and mature; it’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.
Set in Mexico City in 1970, Roma is the story of Cleo, a live-in maid for Sophia, her husband Antonio, and their three young children. Also in the house are Sophia’s mother, Teresa, and another maid, Adela. Cleo works hard – although she doesn’t clean up after the family dog as often as her employers would like – and she adores the children, who are her main responsibility. Roma lets us experience a year or so in the life of Cleo and those around her.
The real magic of the film, what gives it a sort of hypnotic quality, is that Cuarón allows scenes to play out for much longer than might be typical, especially in an entertainment climate that is always anticipating the next edit. He trusts his audience to be swept up into Cleo’s story. It also helps that he is talented enough of a director to make that happen. Roma (which gets its title from the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City in which it’s set) has Cuarón involved in almost every aspect of production. In addition to directing, he also wrote, co-produced, and co-edited it, as well as handling the cinematography, a duty usually entrusted to his long-time director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki.
This is Cuarón’s most personal film, and not simply because of all of the technical responsibilities he took on for it. Roma is Cleo’s story, but Cuarón drew upon memories of his own childhood, and the woman who helped raise him, as inspiration. Early in the film we see that Sophia and Antonio are having problems in their marriage. Antonio soon unceremoniously abandons the family.
This series of events plays out in a fascinating way. The information comes to us indirectly. We hear one side of a phone call from Sophia to a friend. We get snatches of conversation between the married couple. One explanation is that this is Cleo’s story. To her, the crumbling of her employers’ marriage is on the periphery. Another is that this is domestic drama as filtered through the memory of a child, so they are presented as half-remembered bits and pieces.
The rest of Cuarón’s aesthetic for Roma beautifully complements this approach. The film uses stark, glorious monochromatic cinematography, emulating memories of long ago. The director also makes the camera – or more precisely, its movement – a key element in evoking the feeling of a memory so distant that it borders on being a dream. As odd as it might seem to apply the same techniques he used in his space-set film Gravity to the human drama of a maid in 1970s Mexico City, that’s exactly what Cuarón did. In numerous scenes, the camera pans slowly back and forth, like when Cleo moves about the house, tidying here and straightening there. Just as in Gravity, a few of these pans blossom into full 360° arcs, giving us a complete picture of the world Cuarón is re-creating. Several dolly shots following the characters in the streets of Mexico City add to the sense of fluidity that the movie achieves.
These virtuoso camera moves – and one sequence that stands out due to a lack of them – heighten the tension as the movie erupts in violence in the last act. Mexico suffered intense political turmoil in the 1970s. Cuarón eschews any sort of exposition of the specifics, though. In a move that adds to its visceral impact, he sticks to Roma’s storytelling conceit. The bloody riot that precedes another harrowing event, involving Cleo herself, comes to us as both memory and nightmare. It is rendered as the terrifying recollections of a child, or rather the adult version of that child making sense of events from his distant past.
The setting might be from Cuarón’s own memory, but Roma’s perspective is centered on Cleo. Her story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming; watching her navigate her world is a transcendental experience. The actress who plays Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio, is a revelation. It’s the small moments that are most charming, like her mischievous grin as she watches her boyfriend, Fermín, try to impress her by demonstrating his martial arts prowess while completely naked.
Aparicio also possesses the power to make us completely empathize with Cleo. A moment in a crowded street outside of a movie theater, when she learns a hard truth about Fermín, is devastating. More so are two scenes towards the end of the film. One takes place on the heels of the riot. Another comes in the final minutes of Roma. That one – a superb blend of Aparicio’s performance and Cuarón’s screenplay – culminates in a moment that is shattering, yet cathartic.
Roma is a meditation on a certain time and place in the life of Alfonso Cuarón. His own experiences shaped the film, but the woman it focuses on gives it an emotional resonance. The power of seeing something as simple as her smile is a near-mystical experience.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Roma is visually elegant and striking. The black-and-white photography is sublime. The way Cuarón allows the story to unfurl at its own pace, while also punctuating it with bold camera movement and a breathtaking last act make it a masterpiece.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The review might make the movie sound like a compete downer from start to finish. That isn’t quite the case. There are moments of levity, though they are used sparingly. One of the best is when Antonio comes home from a work trip. His prize possession, a meticulously kept car, barely fits into the family garage. Cuarón takes pains to show us just how careful Antonio must be to squeeze it in. It’s a brief (about 30 or 45 seconds) sequence with no dialog that perfectly telegraphs everything we need to know about the character.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I attended a press only screening. Everyone in the room exited after it was over as if they had the wind knocked out of them.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- The based-on-true-events movie Beautiful Boy uses two different memoirs as its source material. The drama examines drug addiction and how it tears a family apart. Steve Carell stars as the father (and author of one of the memoirs) and Timothée Chalamet stars as the son (you guessed it, the author of the other memoir), who is battling methamphetamine addiction.