To be perfectly candid, I’ve never fully connected with the works of Academy Award winning director Alfonso Cuarón. His entry into the Harry Potter series, Prisoner of Azkaban, might be one of the better films, but I never found it to be the leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of them. Children of Men is additionally a film I greatly appreciate from a craft perspective but the movie itself bounced right off of me. Gravity, the best of his films thus far, again worked like gangbusters when it focused on the masterfully crafted roller coaster ride scenes, but the heavy handed textual and subtextual motherhood themes always left me at arm’s length. Even Y Tu Mamá También, what many critics call his masterpiece, left me a little cold. He’s a director I greatly admire and am regularly dazzled by as a technician, but I’ve never fully clicked with his material outside of the craft on display.1
Cuarón finally 100%, no reservations, sold me with Roma, one of the best films of the year and his most personal, heartfelt masterpiece.
Set in the very early 1970s, Cuarón’s film is about Cleo, a live-in housekeeper for an upper class family in Mexico City. She works for Sofia and Antonio, a married couple with three children whose relationship is on the rocks. As Antonio abandons the family to go galavant around with his mistress,2 Cleo becomes much more involved in the children’s lives. Cleo struggles with living a double life as both “the help” and a member of Sofia’s family. Her anguish only increases tenfold when she finds out she is pregnant and her boyfriend immediately runs and hides from her.
The first thing that stands out in Roma is the cinematography, done by Cuarón himself due to a scheduling conflict with his long time partner and three-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuarón’s stated, in a pre-recorded message to begin the screening, that his intent for the film was to be a love letter to the women who raised him, and that much of the film came straight from his memory. These concepts are woven into the very fabric of each of Cuarón’s shots. Each scene is filled with immense goings-on—a forest fire, family dinners, civil protestors, marching bands, dogs3—and yet the focus is almost laser tight on a single point, whether it be Cleo, or Sofia, or the children. Like a child’s memory, certain aspects of a recollection are crystal clear while other surrounding information is somewhat lost by the wayside. Cuarón’s epic-style filmmaking technique here, despite the film being an intimate period piece family drama, perfectly correlates with both childhood memories and the point of view of being a child.
Cuarón might be shooting this without Lubezki, but that also doesn’t mean his flair for expressive cinematography isn’t still on display. We’re treated to, but what else, a tracking shot to open the film as we follow Cleo as she cleans Sofia and Antonio’s house, establishing the building’s geography. Pulling double duty as co-editor alongside Adam Gough, Cuarón shoots and forms nigh every scene as a series of long-takes, often with the camera planted firmly in the center of the house and slowly panning to slightly peak into different doorways. Cuarón’s camera movement in Roma isn’t as frantic as some of the handheld work of Lubezki, rather there’s a stillness to each shot even when the frame is constantly in motion. One shot involves having a man stand perfectly still on one leg (his other forming a 4) with his eyes closed, arms forming a circle above his head, and the tips of his fingers just barely touching. As this happens, a 7374 flies off in the distance and is directly framed in the middle of the man’s arms. This Cuarón guy knows what he’s doing.
Roma primarily works because of Cuarón’s incredible technical abilities as a filmmaker,5but also his adoring, yet unflinchingly honest lens for the characters and the film’s setting. As mentioned above, there’s always something else brewing under the surface of most of the film. We’re only given hints about Sofia and Antonio’s relationship collapse, as the film’s focus is squarely on Cleo. Similarly, we get a glimpse of Cleo’s boyfriend and his martial arts training, but it’s initially a comedy beat mixed with Cleo’s emotional vulnerability. We get some sense of the class struggle in Mexico at the time, but only in bits and pieces for the first two thirds of the film: protesters, the foyer of the movie theater being littered with cops and panhandlers, and the military parades that flow through town. We get child-like glimpses of the civil unrest, with the biggest “class” discrepancy we feel being Sofia’s family getaway to visit a wealthier family friend’s massive home and property for New Years. There are probably ten feature length narratives that could have been created out of the background periphery of scenes.
Which is why it hits so hard when the underlying atmosphere of untold stories Cuarón built for Roma smashes into the central narrative. The student protests, the class struggles, Cleo’s baby daddy’s martial arts all clash with Cleo’s giving birth during the Corpus Christi massacre. It’s an explosive and frankly heart pounding climax where Cuarón’s wide, focused scope goes from a fascinating technique to convey theme to a full blown historical epic. It’s one of the few moments where the scenes foreground the “action” and weave Cleo in and out of the background. The chaos of the moment is truly spectacular while also being gut wrenchingly brutal.6
You could also make an argument that Roma is Cuarón’s funniest film yet. Scenes of Sofia destroying Alfonso’s prized car—and the subsequent reveals of the more-and-more damaged car—or Cleo’s boyfriend doing martial arts completely naked and thinking he’s the coolest just exemplify how fully thought out and developed Roma was in Cuarón’s mind before he brought it to life. The comedy, however, often underpins the melancholy of the film. Everything is funny… until it isn’t, so to speak. It’s a really elegant way of balancing a “serious drama” while not having your film cut too far into misanthropy.
I’ve gone on ad nauseum about Cuarón’s filmmaking, but the performances here are stellar as well, with Yalitza Aparicio’s meek and anxious Cleo and Marina de Tavira’s “barely keeping her head above water” Sofia standing out as their two characters drive the film’s story. The tension between the two women, who according to Sofia “need to stick together,” is palpable primarily through their performances. At times they have a warm, loving relationship, but other times Sofia’s anger gets the best of her, and Cleo is the easiest target because she’s not really family.
This might be a Netflix original and will be only receiving a limited theatrical run, but you should absolutely see this on as big of a screen as you can, as watching it on a phone or a laptop or even a 40 inch TV wouldn’t do this film justice. Intimate, and yet all encompassing in scope, Roma is one of the year’s best films and is every bit deserving of the rapturous acclaim it has received thus far.
- This is almost certainly because I am a monster, and I accept this.
- Sofia tells the kids he’s at a conference in Quebec, which is both sad and a somewhat amusing substitute for “banging some floozy.”
- Cuarón cleverly uses our canine companions as a motif throughout the film. Dogs might be “family” but they’re also still animals and aren’t really a part of the real family. Just like Cleo.
- Another one of Cuarón’s motifs that litters the film.
- For the real cinematography and/or math nerds like our own Mavis, Roma features an insane amount of “golden ratio”-ing.
- Expectant parents, you might not want to see Roma for a bit. As one myself, the film’s climax almost made me leave the theater with a pit in my stomach.