Roma

Studio: Netflix
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Nov 21, 2018 Web Exclusive
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It is difficult not to see Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s first film set in his native Mexico since 2001, as the film of a free man. After the ignominious failure of his early English-language efforts in the mid-late 1990s (largely forgotten loose adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations), Cuarón retreated to his native land and made Y Tu Mamá También, a controversial (but globally successful) road movie that re-launched a potentially stalling career. Having turned in by far the best effort in the Harry Potter franchise (2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban) and perhaps the finest dystopian film of the twenty-first century to date (2006’s Children of Men), Cuarón reached the pinnacle of Hollywood glory upon being awarded the Best Director Oscar for 2013’s Gravity.

With nothing left to prove, Cuarón has delivered what feels like the purest film of his career to date. Roma (named after the district of Mexico City in which it is predominantly set) is an unhurried, two-and-a-quarter hour drama that charts the life of one middle-class Mexican family over the course of approximately a year (1970-71). Based loosely on Cuarón’s own upbringing and shot on 65mm black and white film by the director himself (regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable), on first watch Roma feels amusingly close to being the antithesis of the effects-laden Gravity. Where that film was something like a grandiose thriller, set not only off-world but in a technology-centred setting lightyears away from the everyday reality of viewers, Roma takes a sly pleasure in its domesticity and in the ordinariness of its subject matter. Few films place this much emphasis on squeezing an (optimistically wide) car into the driveway, or on the mundane repetitiveness of cleaning up dog shit.

It says much about Cuarón’s double shift behind the camera here that the latter activity is rendered rather beautiful. Vaguely reminiscent of Satyajit Ray or Italian neorealist masters like Roberto Rossellini and (early career) Luchino Visconti, Roma is hard to critique visually. Oscar-winner Lubezki, so crucial not just to Cuarón’s career but also that of fellow Mexican star director Alejandro González Iñárittu and (since 2005) the legendary American auteur Terrence Malick, is – remarkably – not missed. Gloriously shot and intelligently framed, the film is a masterful exercise in showing rather than telling. Narratively, it is comparable to the elliptical style of the Japanese master of family dynamics, Yasujirō Ozu, who famously tended to avoid depicting major events in detail. Like Ozu, Cuarón leaves the audience to piece much of the drama together. In fact, for much of Roma the focus is less on the family unit at its heart than on Cleo, one of their two live-in housekeepers. It is through Cleo’s own heart-rending story that this broader portrait of familial disintegration and survival is told. The parental relationship that gives the film its narrative thrust is barely given a moment of direct screen time.

Cleo’s centrality to the unfolding of Roma also allows other important themes – chiefly class and gender – to breathe and come into focus. This film is unambiguous about the extent to which it is women, rather than men, who are left to deal with issues of family. The line “We are alone. No matter what they tell you… women, we are always alone”, spoken in one of the film’s most revealing conversations, is fundamental to understanding it on a deeper level. Meanwhile, in her role as a domestic servant, Cleo exposes the faultlines in Mexican society. She is placed (sometimes literally) in the margins of her environs, whether in the family home where she works or in the shantytown where she journeys in search of an ex-boyfriend.  That is not to say that Roma spends much of its energy on highlighting the inequity between Cleo and her employers. In fact this relationship is anything but uncaring; Cleo is part of the family at the same time as being contractually obliged to serve it. Yalitza Aparicio, as Cleo, conveys all this expertly, thus anchoring the film and providing much of its emotive power.

It would be remiss not to mention the fact that Roma is not just a significant film in Cuarón’s career, but also carries a certain degree of importance for the film industry more broadly. As a Netflix production, Roma could well be the film that gains the streaming giant the art cinema prestige it clearly craves; certainly, the universally positive early reviews suggest this will be the case. For all the positive elements of the Netflix distribution model in terms of accessibility, however, it is a pity that a film this cinematic will not get the lengthy run in theatres that it deserves. Moreover, thanks to Netflix insisting that its sound mix is such that it can only be shown on screens with Dolby Atmos sound systems, it will largely bypass the independent cinemas who would surely be most keen to show it.

More to the point, it is difficult to imagine that this film will benefit from the small screen. If there is a problem with Roma then it might be that Cuarón has made something too subtle. Having only watched it on the big screen myself (where, I stress, I strained – to no avail – to find something profoundly special about the sound mixing) I wonder if a film so light on melodrama, yet heavy on spectacular visuals, will be as powerful viewed at home. It would be a crying shame if such a multi-layered, profoundly moving film was adored by critics only to appear underwhelming when watched (as it will be by many) on a laptop screen. 

This film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival 2018.

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10



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