Roma is the kind of movie that births film criticism. It will be used as the golden example in so many future texts I ache to think how many words will eventually be written about it and can’t quite fathom it.
Mexico City, 1971, a young family is having a rough time. Mom and Dad were fighting a lot, before he left, and now they do it on the phone, when he remembers to call. Four young kids are feeling vulnerable and acting out. Two young servants are trying to keep it all from falling apart. But one of them, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is going through her own private crisis as well. She’s pregnant, and the father has run off. Fearing for her job but unable to return home to her religious family, her current situation is tenuous and her future uncertain.
This is the semi-autobiographical work by Alfonso Cuaron about that crazy time in his childhood when his beloved maid’s unexpected pregnancy collided with his parents’ bitter divorce. It marked him for life, and all these years later he’s strung together the haunting images from that period and used his memory to paint in the rest. He’s only a minor character in the film, it’s really an ode to the women who raised him: his mother, the two servants, and Mexico herself.
Cuaron immerses us in Mexico circa 1971. Filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, you can’t help but drink it all in, everything from the airplanes overhead, to the geese in flagrante delicto, the muddy markets and the local cinemas, the grassfires and New Year’s Eve traditions, rooftop laundry and candlelit chores, every scene is packed with loving details to a time and place Cuaron clearly treasures. His camera moves slowly, soaking up detail, lingering lovingly in quiet places. His trademark long takes emphasize time and space – the big house compared to the servant’s quarters, and the time Cleo devotes to undoing the naughty work of busy children. The sound design is incredible. At times I was overwhelmed by the layers of noise in the city – hawkers, vendors, tradespeople, cars, trucks, buses, dogs barking, children playing, marching bands tooting their various horns in seemingly random parades.
Roma is of course shot in Spanish and subtitled with care. It is obviously composed with great care as well, with so many interesting angles and viewpoints (a Christmas party filmed at child height, for example) and depths of field. Lensed by Cuaron himself (Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable, but his collaboration in pre-production means his DNA’s all over it, Cuaron assures us), he often keeps his entire shot in crisp focus, with as much going on in the background as the foreground – but when the focus goes soft, it’s for good reason. Take note.
This film brims with the kind of personal detail that makes it truly unique. I especially liked seeing the young boys clearly obsessed with outer space – posters, toys, and astronaut costumes – you can’t fail to think that these are the origins of Gravity. Indeed, Cuaron has left a little piece of his heart on the screen. It is not sentimental, but it is affectionate, made with love. And I think it will be received, by audiences and the Academy, with nothing but.