Roma review: Alfonso Cuaron's new film finds beauty in the ordinary
The film almost feels like a therapy of sorts for Cuaron, whose father left him when he was only ten years old
After the rigorous and exhausting production work of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron said in an interview that his next film will be set on earth, featuring regular people doing a lot of talking and walking. That's exactly what Roma is. But being the visionary filmmaker that he is, one doesn't expect him to make something bland and unremarkable. It has to be something special, and that Roma certainly is.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga
Watching the film has the effect of relishing an exquisite delicacy prepared with love and care by a master chef. Right from its opening image -- water on a dry floor morphing itself into a mirror to reveal an aircraft flying overhead -- Roma has elegance and tranquility written all over its frames, even in the film's most heated moments. Cuaron, who also served as the cinematographer, wants you to absorb each and every detail present in a scene. Through his fluid tracking shots, he compels you to find beauty in the ordinary. Even the soapy water coming out a drain finds its own beauty in Cuaron's lens.
Roma is a deeply personal, compassionate, and poignant portrait of Cuaron's childhood, told mostly from the point-of-view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the Mexican nanny of an upper-class family living in the middle of a Cosmopolitan city. Cuaron based Cleoon his own nanny who used to look after him when he was a child. She was a constant presence throughout his childhood.
We initially sense a distance between Cleo and the woman of the family Sofia (Marina de Tavira). But when Cleo's boyfriend runs away upon learning she is pregnant, and a while later Sofia's doctor husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) leaves her and her kids to go after another woman, the two women find common ground to connect with each other. Cuaron juxtaposes these events against the socio-political unrest in Mexico during the 70s. His staging of the Corpus Christi Massacre -- a shocking moment in Mexican history -- brings to mind the intense, one-take climax from his Children of Men (2006).
The film almost feels like a therapy of sorts for Cuaron, whose father left him when he was only ten years old. This is much like how Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T to deal with his parents' divorce. Cuaron pays more attention to the life-changing events in Cleo's life in the first half -- which she recounted to Cuaron long ago -- before slowly dividing our attention between Cleo and the simmering tensions in his own family in the second half.
Some old masters of cinema say the camera should never call attention to itself. Cuaron is one of those filmmakers who doesn't follow this approach. However, his approach never feels like a gimmick. All the shots make perfect sense when you look at the overall picture. If he is calling your attention to the surroundings, it's only fair that he calls your attention to the way his camera moves.
In some portions, the camera seems to move in the same trajectory while a particular image is pulled away from us, quickly but softly, only to be replaced by the next. At times the camera behaves like a mother pointing her child in the direction of the birds and the animals in the neighborhood. Achieving this perfect sync of well-timed camera movements, razor-sharp editing, and crystal clear ambient sounds must've taken a lot of effort. It must be noted that every film of Cuaron has at least one memorable shot (remember the opening sequence from Gravity?).
It's perfectly obvious why Roma didn't get a worldwide theatrical release and was picked up by Netflix instead. Its pacing is deliberate, it is in black and white, and it has subtitles -- the last two factors alone should be enough to keep general audiences away from theatres. In a time when even an acclaimed filmmaker like Martin Scorsese is finding it difficult to get funding for his films -- his big-budgeted The Irishman will premiere on Netflix next year -- why should the fact that an Alfonso Cuaron film getting a limited release surprise us?
Yes, we may not get to see it on a big screen but the advantage of a Netflix release is we get to see it before the Oscars are announced rather than waiting for Indian theatres to release it months after the U.S release -- or worse, the Oscar ceremony. Now, how cool is that?