After crafting two of the greatest sci-fi films of the 21st century in Children of Men and Gravity, along with giving us the best Harry Potter film, Alfonso Cuarón returns with a work reminiscent of his breakthrough, Y Tu Mamá También.
Roma is the story of Cleo, a poor maid working for an upper class family in early 70’s Mexico City. While the film stays focused on Cleo’s journey over the course of a year, it uses her tale to explore so much more.
Like Y Tu Mamá También before it, Roma is set against a backdrop of political upheaval. And much like the protagonists of that earlier work, Cleo herself never becomes particularly involved; these events exist as a looming threat, one most would rather ignore until it physically comes to them. So, while this story is about Cleo (and hers truly is a phenomenal tale – the final act of this film is both devastating and revelatory), Roma is just as much a story of the city itself.
This is accomplished through Cuarón’s stellar cinematography. Nearly every shot runs for an extended length, usually set in an incredible deep focus. Many scenes find several elements battling for attention; for example, an early scene finds Cleo with a man at the theater as a comedic war film plays in the background. The relative motion draws your eyes to the film, despite knowing the true action of the scene is the conversation in the foreground. Even in all these wide shots, Cuarón is expertly in control of where eyes will land.
In many ways, Roma is a slow film – but I would say that is ultimately to the film’s benefit in the long run. Minutes can go by without much happening, and I found myself questioning just what this movie was about during its opening hour – but so much is subtly put into place through these moments. The opening hour is like a lift hill, a necessity before we rush into the inevitable. It’s easy to be an hour in and come to the conclusion that this is an ‘art film’ to an annoying extreme; by trying to be about everything, it appears to really be saying nothing at all.
But by setting us up to believe that this is a film of vague intentions, Cuarón manages to catch us with no expectations of where it will truly land. Despite its relative visual distance from its human characters, this film truly is concerned with the human experience. This is a rare film where I had to let the credits run through, so in shock at my feelings that I had to take several minutes of silence to recuperate.
There is a key image Cuarón returns to throughout the film. The first time it happens, the father of the family returns early; Cuarón cuts between various shots of the car pulling into the drive, avoiding the father himself until he finishes pulling in. The excruciating detail of this scene is how clearly the car does not fit in the narrow drive. We return to this same scenario, the car both causing damage and becoming damaged itself. Both for the characters and the audience, there is a desire for something bigger, some grandiose meaning to everything. But sometimes, too big is too much. Cuarón is aware of his excess from the beginning, and it’s when the mother of the family returns with a smaller vehicle that the plot is also allowed to narrow. Cuarón knows when to go big, but he is always in command.
Roma is the best film by one of the greatest directors working today. It is a pure visual feast, clearly inspired by Fellini’s most excessive works but never losing its humanity. But where Cuarón really outshines Fellini is his treatment of women; Roma is ultimately a tale of womanhood, of the expectations thrust upon women by society and the harsh methods of coping that are sometimes necessary.
Roma is about women, about Mexico City, about political revolutions, abandonment, despair. Roma is one of many art films that strives to be about everything all at once; but it’s a rare one that largely succeeds at the endeavor.