Impeccably shot and emotionally devastating, Roma is Alfonso Cuarón's most masterful film yet
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
Alfonso Cuarón’s career has always felt like preparation for something bigger. That’s not to take away from any of his films, as most of his filmography stands out as some of the greatest cinematic works of the past few decades. But it’s always felt there was a slight, hidden ulterior motive to each of his films, as if every one was designed as a practice of sorts for what he would consider his magnum opus. From the emotional depths of Y tu Mamá También to the intricate camerawork of Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón has constructed himself a film school most can only dream of. The result of his efforts, besides his now already legendary status, is his passion project Roma, a love letter to the women of his childhood and a startling achievement that cements Cuarón as one of our generation’s greatest filmmakers.
Set over the course of 1970-1971 in Mexico City, the film follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young live-in maid who forms the backbone of the rich family she works for. Along with her best friend and fellow maid Adela (Nancy García), she takes care of doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofia (Marina da Tavira), their three young children, and Sofia’s mother Teresa (Verónica García). Cleo, warm and resolute, finds her soul increasingly tested as her world begins to crumble around her: Antonio leaves Sofia for another woman, leaving the family in personal and financial turmoil as the students protests that will eventually lead to the Corpus Christi massacre rage outside their walls. What unfolds over the year that follows Antonio’s departure will change Cleo’s life forever, sending her down the harsh rabbit hole of adulthood and propelling her into uncharted waters.
To say too much about the plot is to spoil the film’s natural energy, a slowly unfolding, deeply intimate portrait of daily life in Mexico City at a time where it was most vulnerable. It’s telling that Cuarón, who not only directed but also wrote, co-edited, and served as cinematographer for the film, mandated that it would be shot in order with only snippets of the film’s script being revealed to the actors from day to day. The decision gives the film an almost documentary feel, providing a raw emotional palette that only deepens the film’s impact. It helps that his actors are magnificent, particularly Aparicio, a local Cuarón discovered through a casting call in Oaxaca. Despite no acting experience, she plays the part not just like a seasoned professional, but as if she’s lived Cleo’s life herself. It’s a commanding, deeply empathetic performance that succeeds despite almost the entire emotional weight of film being placed on Aparicio’s shoulders.
Don’t let the seemingly slow pace fool you, this is still a film that lets Cuarón show off his technical prowess and then some. The proceedings are littered with some of the most fascinating camerawork of the past few years, from constrained, personal moments of quiet beauty to flooring scenes of grand orchestration. Where the film really astounds is in it crowded set-pieces, with Cuarón manufacturing some unbelievably realistic shots of bustling city streets as if he’s simply a man going about his business who happens to have a camera with him. Every one of these complex scenes feels alive, as if you’re immersed in Cuarón’s memory so deeply that you’re becoming a part of it. Street hawkers croon, children play, car horns blare. Small details coming together to form a layered, authentic portrait of Mexican culture. And that’s just the showier scenes; other, more serene moments provide shots that are equally breathtaking, a long take following Cleo into the ocean, a drunken man singing to a wildfire, a wrestler pointing into the expanse of the city sky. This is a film so visually rich that if you stood outside the theater after the credits roll and asked each leaving audience member what image stood out to them the most, you’d get a different answer every time.
That, of course, brings us to the film’s Netflix conundrum. A lot of online discourse has arose over the film’s status as a Netflix original, which resigns the film to a fate of being seen more by streaming audiences than cinema attendees. That is admittedly a bit of a pity, because this is an honest-to-god tailored for a theater experience, particularly in its lush Dolby Atmos sound design. The film has no score, with Cuarón opting for a more naturalistic approach to audio, so he makes up for it by plunging you into a sometimes dizzying soundscape of chirping birds, street noise, and the constant drone of military bands marching through the city. To experience that along with the crisp cinematography is a profound, revolutionary experience that makes you feel the call of the filmmaking future.
Despite all of this, don’t let the pestering of online film circles convince you the film isn’t worth seeing if you only watch it on Netflix. The film is going to be deeply beautiful no matter how you experience it, and that’s not just because of its technical achievements. While its deliberate pacing can make the film feel a little emotionally distant at times, this is a powerful, devastating drama that is much more than just a showcase for Cuarón’s skills behind the camera. It’s a sneakily overwhelming work, sublime in its ability to use memory as a stomping ground for a plethora of contrasting, uncontrollable passions and sympathies. Part of the magic of the film is its honesty, portraying Cleo and her struggles with a lens that simply captures her as she is. It accepts her as complex and most of all human, providing no academic analysis or social justice consciousness to her triumphs and struggles. The film is more interested in how we find love and joy in the majority of our lives, those monotonous, seemingly insignificant moments that give us comfort. That can occasionally feel like the film is providing a slightly too rosy view of working class life, as if Cleo’s service to her tortured aristocratic employers is more of a privilege than a burden, but few works are more adept at capturing the profundity and beauty of true everyday life than this one. That’s what truly makes it special. The astonishing work behind the camera is just a particularly excellent bonus.
Roma is a true cinematic achievement, the kind of film that will be studied and deservedly fawned over for generations to come. Despite some small narrative blemishes, it’s the complete cinematic package: impeccably designed, deftly acted, and deeply moving and impactful. More importantly, it acknowledges the immense debt we owe to the women who raised us, and settles that account with grace. If Cuarón’s previous filmography was chosen by him as an outline to deliver this film, than it’s safe to say that the hard work paid off.