When Gravity came out in 2013, it physically changed me as a person, as I have not breathed the same since. I saw the film five times throughout its theatrical run, all five times in IMAX 3D, taking a different person in my life each time to experience it in a different way. It was my #1 movie of 2013, and, to this day, still, probably my #1 film of the 2010’s so far. Alfonso Cuarón’s vision of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s traversal through space after a catastrophic disaster is such a show of immense talent as a filmmaker that it feels like any follow-up to the film would fall flat in comparison. Since Gravity, a lot has happened in the world, and Cuarón took his sweet time crafting something to follow Gravity, and knowing that he could literally develop anything he wanted, what was Cuarón’s move?
A quiet, introspective look at life.
Roma might seem like a bit of a step back for the filmmaker from the briefest of first glances, but any of Cuarón’s films, even ones like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, can be argued as quiet, introspective looks at life because that’s what he does best. The difference with Roma is that the restraints were cut completely on Cuarón’s ability to craft something exactly the way he intended, and that’s what makes Roma as special as it is. Roma isn’t just a great film by any means, but it feels special in just how perfectly personal, effortlessly ephemeral, and absolutely devastating it is.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a young, indigenous Mexican woman who is a live-in maid for a middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City in 1970, headed by Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, and Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist, and their four children, as well as Sofia’s mother, and another maid, Adela (Nancy García). After Antonio leaves Sofia, the adults agree to uphold the façade that Antonio is on a business trip to avoid upsetting the children. At the same time, Cleo discovers she is pregnant with the child of her first lover, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). As the family begins to adjust to their strange new way of life, the Mexican Student Movement, and the protests that follow in Mexico City, are in full effect, casting a shadow over the home of the family.
It’s hard describing Roma without making it sound mundane and slow, but, in a sense, the film is exactly that. The non-issue with this is that Cuarón has an innate ability to make the mundane feel monumental, hitting emotional notes that films that seek exclusively to hit those notes could only dream to achieve. Roma celebrates the extraordinary ability for real life to be magical, both light and dark, even without a hint of fantasy involved. There’s a grand scale to the film that makes the final product feel more like an epic than a look inside the life of one family and their maids.
The performances across the board don’t exhibit any sort of showiness or “scene-stealing” properties to them, because none of them feel like “performances” at all. Of course, the idea of this, especially coming from non-actors, isn’t something new that auteurs like Cuarón have done before, but there’s an almost off-putting sense of reality in these performances where whenever the story takes any sort of negative turn, you feel the bruises made on the souls of these characters like they were your own kin. Regardless, it would feel remiss not to acknowledge that Roma is still by-and-large Aparicio’s film from start to finish. The sense of unflinching vulnerability, one that doesn’t feel shamed under the veil of weakness, is one that grabs the viewer in a way that many performances could only dream to do.
And that sense of “showiness” almost continues over to the filmmaking style that Cuarón has put into effect here. I say “almost” if only because it’s damn near impossible not to notice every single beautiful stroke that Cuarón has placed here on the screen. The film is painted in extended, selective vignettes, favoring long shots of a singular sequence as opposed to jumping to every big event in this family’s life. Even the way that Cuarón details the dog excrement Cleo has to clean up on a daily basis feels absent of any major control from behind the camera. There’s a major dichotomy in how much the film relies on Cuarón’s astute hand to guide the film, but also in how organic and ephemeral the film feels on its own, and how rather than documenting the story in a controlled and choreographed way, Cuarón often just lets Roma be…well…Roma. Still, this is far from some sloppy auteur letting his cast lead his film for him because Cuarón’s stamp is all over this film, possibly moreso than any of his previous films.
And here’s where Roma gets sticky; not in the film itself, but where you as a viewer choose to see the film. As a Netflix Original Film, it’s not only groundbreaking that such an established filmmaker has chosen to make a film with the streaming platform, but it’s where most of the magic of Roma has come from. Without the constraints of a major studio dictating how his film is made, Cuarón has made something truly personal and unrestrained, but at the cost of losing much of the film’s theatrical distribution to streaming. While Roma will easily be Netflix’s biggest theatrical run to date, and one of the first to debut weeks in advance of its streaming debut in theaters, most theaters will not run the film. Those who adore the film will be the first to tell you that Roma *must* be experienced in a cinema and that you will not get the full effect watching the film at home. While Roma does have an immense sense of scale and an absolutely incredible sound design (one that benefits from the theatrical experience), watch the film wherever you can. The power of Roma will not come from the size of the screen you see it on or the number of speakers you hear it from, but from the film itself. There is no right or wrong way to experience Roma. Cuarón would not have crafted a film such as this for Netflix without making this stipulation incredibly clear.
Regardless of how you see Roma, you will you get the same thing: an absolutely devastating film of an epic magnitude. It’s an absolute earthquake of a film that hits so many boxes of emotional, technical, and visual perfection. Cuarón’s vision of life has been transferred with such immense love that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the film’s final scene. It’s a film that builds you up and beats you down in such discrete ways that you hardly even realize the trauma you’ve been put through until its complete, but in the same breath, you feel the warm love of Roma’s embrace long after the credits have rolled.
Final score: 5 out of 5