Alfonzo Cuarón has certainly made a name for himself over the course of his eight-film directorial career including a “Harry Potter” film, “Children of Men” and “Gravity” for which he won an Oscar. He had not directed a film since “Gravity” though until this year with the release of possibly his most personal work to date, “Roma”. Now normally I don’t review foreign language films on this blog, nor do I touch a lot of Netflix movies, but “Roma” has gotten so much hype as a possible Academy Award favorite that I just HAD to make an exception and check it out. The fact that it won the coveted Golden Lion at the 75th Venice International Film Festival doesn’t hurt either. So yes, there’s a lot going for this film, but just how good is it really? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Roma”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Inspired by Cuarón’s own upbringing in Mexico City and set over around a year’s time from 1970 to 1971, “Roma” follows a maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who serves a family composed of mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), absent father Dr. Antonio (Fernando Rediaga), grandmother Teresa (Verónica Garcia) and several children. The family shares a close bond with Cleo and often treat her as a true member of the household. Throughout the movie we follow Cleo in her day to day life as she experiences the family falling apart as well as an unplanned pregnancy while civil unrest explodes around her leading to the Corpus Christi Massacre. The story focuses squarely on Cleo while also drawing attention to the chaotic realities around her all set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City that gives the film its name.
The best way I can describe “Roma” is that it’s a great slice of reality. I can’t say it’s the most exciting movie I’ve ever seen but it isn’t really meant to be and it is certainly still very engrossing. I enjoyed watching what is a very personal story unfold and that’s really what this film is meant to be. There’s no flashy effects or overdramatic plot lines. Everything feels like a snapshot of real life and that was obviously the goal here especially when you consider some of the artistic approached Cuarón took to bringing the film to the screen. “Roma” really is a beautiful film that’s sincerely acted, thoughtfully written and wonderfully shot to bring out every subtlety of its many important scenes that make up what is really a very simple story. The whole thing is supposed to feel like a snapshot of life and it really plays out that way.
One of the coolest creative choices in this movie is the use of panoramic shots to set a lot of the scenes. When we see Cleo walking around the house the camera follows her making the experience feel genuine and fluid as if we were spectators watching someone’s daily routine unfold. But it also works in more fast-paced scenes as well like when Cleo and her friend are running down the street racing to a restaurant. It’s a simple moment, one you wouldn’t think would add too much to a film with so much more to share, but the camera never breaks its focus and thus we get a smooth and delightful scene that again feels genuine in how it’s portrayed. But there’s more to this. One of the best aspects of this movie is something that Cuarón himself admitted was a theme of the film and that’s acknowledging the world around Cleo while rarely taking the focus off of her directly.
We see numerous conflicts play out from something as simple as discovered infidelity to something as extreme as a public protest and it feels like Cleo is just stuck in the middle of it all. The focus barely breaks from her, so the viewer gets to experience first hand how SHE responds to these events without being spoon-fed any revelations or emotional impact. It’s all portrayed in Cleo’s reactions and expressions. One scene in particular in the final act strikes a huge blow to Cleo emotionally but the way it’s shot it never takes the focus off of her and everything happens in the background while we watch her evolve from shock to grief and then to acceptance of what just occurred in one of the best moments in the entire movie. Also the fact that the film is shot in black and white levels the playing field for the characters too. It makes it harder to judge any of these people based on their race, style or image and also prevents any one detail from the background or foreground from standing out above the rest. It basically gives us an unbiased perspective of the world of Roma which plays into the larger scale of what Alfonso Cuarón was trying to present. Another way of looking at it is while the world is shown in black in white nothing in this story is actually that simple, maiing this creative choice ironic as well.
All of this creates a narrative where we, the viewer, are shown evidence that the story is not self-contained. It takes place within a much larger world, the way actual life occurs for each one of us, and that proves to be the hidden beautify within this movie. Alfonso Cuarón, who also edited, wrote and led the cinematography of this film, had a vision and he didn’t just bring it to life he seems to have embraced a Kubrick-like obsession over every little detail to make sure what he is trying to present is done right. You can tell this movie comes from a place of deep significance to the director and every actor seems to realize that as well. Yalitza Aparicio, who takes on the daunting task of portraying Cleo, is incredibly focused and believable. She never denies Cleo the right to be human or flawed but also shows how one person can be impacted by the world around them while never straying from their own life. I’m not exaggerating when I say that “Roma” feels like we’re watching someone’s actual life unfold and while it might not always be exciting it is always interesting and engrossing. These kinds of stories are what make film such an important artform. A lot of times it’s not the most exciting and riveting stories that stand out, but it’s the most human and grounded tales that shine the brightest and that’s the case here.
Like many films of this kind the biggest issue some will find with “Roma” is that while it’s definitely an interesting, engrossing and very well-done film it’s not a very engaging movie. There’s not a lot here for anyone looking for an easy experience that will keep their attention. Instead “Roma” demands you respect it without compromising it’s story to draw you in by force. It’s the kind of movie you need to want to experience and, thankfully, does not go out of its way to try and keep you invested. While I personally feel like this is part of “Roma’s” overall charm and a sign of Cuarón’s undeniable and uncompromising dedication to his vision it does limit the crowd that “Roma” could satisfy. It’s a criticism that is more of an unfortunate reality thank an actual flaw with the film. In the end it’s not the fault of Cuarón or the performers that this film may only reach a niche audience as much as it is a sign of the times. In today’s world I feel like stories like this have to do a little bit more, maybe too much in fact, to earn the attention they deserve. So while “Roma” may not be the most exciting experience, if you take the time to appreciate it I promise it will be one of the most gripping personal stories you’ll ever see in modern cinema.
One issue that I can’t be overlook though is the lack of depth of the side characters. This too is a product of the creative decisions made by Cuarón, but I think it’s a flaw that could have easily been improved on. One of my biggest compliments to the movie was its ability to use shooting styles and perspective to present a larger world while sticking to a focused narrative centering on Cleo. However, this leaves very little room for us to invest in anyone else in the story. Half the characters I even kind of forgot were in the film by the halfway point because we get minimal time if any devoted to establishing their significance or individual personalities. Don’t get me wrong, these characters are well acted so it’s not the performances that are flawed, it’s how little time is devoted to developing their connection to Cleo that really impacts the overall film. I think a little more attention to Cleo’s relationships could have gone a long way to enhancing her journey in the film and it’s not like this was out of the question. We actually do see time invested in her relationship with a couple characters, and in the process we learn more about their stories. The boyfriend who gets Cleo pregnant is one big example of this. So I did find it a bit frustrating that not everyone received this same respect and development. It’s one of those errors that doesn’t really destroy the film or really even make it bad but proves there’s at least one aspect of the project that could have been enhanced.
“Roma” is an excellent, beautiful and near-perfect work of art that lives up to the hype that’s surrounded it for the better part of a year now. But, as with any film of its kind, there are bound to be naysayers and unless you even care to be invested in this movie, I’m sure it will be a tough one for you to sit through. You have to go into “Roma” actually wanting to see what it has to offer because nothing is spoon fed to you here. It’s filled with creative visual style, subtle themes and details that add nuance to the story, and leans heavily on dialogue and the natural flow of life to see its story progress. In many ways this makes it one of the most pleasing movies of the year as well a one of the most profound and heart wrenching because of how honest it can be at times. This is a movie about life and reality and gives viewers a perspective of viewing someone experience a chaotic reality. Like many good movies it’s a portal into a world we can be invested in and also like most great movies the magic is not in the excitement it’s in the story and how it’s put to film. I’m glad I saw it and I want to see it again just to see what I missed that might even help me respect it more. I highly recommend it, but only if you want to take the time to really experience what it has to offer because otherwise you’ll miss everything great about one of the year’s best films.