Directed and Written by: Alfonso Cuarón
Rated: R (Graphic nudity, language and disturbing images)
Length: 135 Minutes
Each December, as the final Oscar hopefuls hit theaters, I start to feel a little depressed about the months ahead. January has a reputation for being the month where studios release titles they were too ashamed to unload the rest of the year. In recent years, there’s been enough garbage to spill over into February and March as well. To cope, I usually begin doing some early research into what is in production or entering post-production that will be hitting theaters the following fall and winter. It was nearly a year ago that I first heard about Alfonso Cuarón’s latest project. I was immediately intrigued, and became more excited for the film with each detail released over the past few months. Roma finally began streaming on Netflix on Friday, and it is one of those wonderful and rare films that exceeds the hype.
Roma is a semi-autobiographical film about Cuarón’s upbringing in Mexico City in the early 1970s. The title refers to the Colonial Roma district of the city, where most of the story takes place. The script focuses on a live-in housekeeper named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who experiences a personal crisis at the same time the family she works for is thrown into turmoil. Unlike many mainstream films that claim to be about housekeepers, maids or drivers, but depict their experiences entirely through the eyes of their employers, Cleo is given an arc that allows her to be onscreen for a majority of the film without the family around. It’s an arc that gracefully touches on class and social inequalities in subtle ways that turn out to be far more powerful than a preachy or plot heavy script could create.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, with Cuarón taking over as cinematographer from longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the narrative plays out like a vivid memory, but one that often focuses on the minute details rather than big events (though there are a few of the latter). This is Cuarón’s first time as cinematographer for a feature length film, though he previously received credit alongside Lubezki for the short film Cuarteto para el fin del tiempo. Every frame and every movement of the camera makes a big impact here, not just to show us what’s going on but to make us feel it.
The most striking aspect of the film’s style is the use of pans. They are effective overall, especially in a scene late in the film where shoppers look out a furniture store window and watch in horror as a student protest turns violent. There are also uses of pans that help us feel both the monotony of Cleo’s daily routine and her familiarity with the family. We travel with her through the entire house on occasions, without cuts, as she makes her final evening rounds, anticipating every light that has been left on and every item that must be put away. Absence of decoupage (long sequences with no cuts) are also used very effectively, mostly in scenes that are too connected with major plot developments to discuss here. Cuarón is looking like a lock to win his second Best Director Oscar, but he absolutely deserves to take home his first for cinematography as well.
Much like a memory, the film conjures a lot of different emotions over its two plus hours. There are some very hard to watch scenes, but I was surprised just how funny other moments are. I don’t mean in a hilarious, gut busting sort of way, but in the little idiosyncrasies and details Cuarón shows us. One series of images that will stick with me for a long time involves a man parking a car. We don’t even see the character’s face until the end of the sequence, but the model and size of the car and the motions he goes through to park it in a specific space tell us almost all we need to know about him.
This is a great film and I am fully aware of how annoyed I am going to be anytime someone confesses to me that they won’t watch it because it’s black and white or has subtitles. Don’t be that person. This is essential and rewarding viewing.
It is not often that you get the joy of watching a film that reaches across cultures in such a way that Roma does. The simplicity of the story is able to transcend the language spoken and the country it is set in in order to make this story so relatable to millions of people around the world. At its heart, this is a story about class structure and toxic masculinity. Each of the female characters in this film, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira), spend a good portion of the film dealing with the consequences of the choices that the men in their lives make. The only difference is one is of them is more financially able to deal with these consequences. This is a very real struggle that women across the world deal with as a result of the gender norms, financial structures, and gender-based assumptions that are enforced.
There is a certain level of comfort that I found in this story. Yes, at times, it does deal with personal tragedy and relational tension. However, a good portion of it follows Cleo through her day to day life: Her time caring for children that are not her own, cleaning a home she could never afford, and exploring a city that never really felt like home. It is a feeling that many millennials today can relate to, regardless of where they live in the world. The feeling of working so hard, but knowing the dreams you have for yourself are somewhat unattainable, is something many viewers will identify with.
There is one scene that I keep coming back to because of how wonderfully shot it was. Honestly, it was one of the most simplistic, yet complex, scenes I have ever seen. In this particular scene, a man is trying to park a large car in a garage. You do not see the man’s face at all. Instead, the shots focus on the car and the man’s hands as he tries to park this obscenely large car in this tiny garage. The last shot of the scene focuses on the front end of the car. The shot lasts a long time and really contributes to the sense of how out of place this character is. This scene though is just one of many that were memorable. If Alfonso Cuarón does not receive an Oscar for cinematography for his work, I will be genuinely surprised.
One of the coolest things about this film is the fact that it is semi-autobiographical, but it does not focus on Cuarón himself. Instead it focuses on the housekeeper he remembers having as a child. It is also really interesting how the script weaves historical events into the narrative. One of the most heartbreaking scenes depicts the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. It is one of several small moments that remind the viewer what time in history this story is set.
Ok, now it is time for me to rant. I guarantee that at some point this awards season I will hear the argument that nothing good is nominated and that the films nominated are only those enjoyed by “film snobs.” Let me just say, I am really tired of having to defend myself against this label. So, I have decided that I am going to start leaning into it. If enjoying film that embraces diverse backgrounds, varied lived experiences, and casts that aren’t all white men makes me a snob, then call me a snob. I will no longer apologize for having not seen the latest blockbuster, or for enjoying films that are a little higher brow than Transformers 752. I am sure there will be at least one time that I have to defend this film because it is shot in black and white and includes subtitles, and that is a shame. This film deserves to be watched by everyone that has access to Netflix.