Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Roma (2018) just dropped on Netflix, and I couldn’t wait to see what all the buzz was about. I’ve very much enjoyed his other films, like Gravity (2013), Children of Men (2006), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and – his entry in the Harry Potter-verse – The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), so I was excited to see this. There is much to appreciate about Roma, from the quiet patience Cuarón presents his stunning visuals with to the subtle performance by the young lead…but by the film’s end, it wasn’t clear why so many others were calling it the “best of the year”.
Roma is a film that needs context to be fully appreciated
Roma is centered around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young servant of a well-to-do family in Mexico City during the early 70s. The family consists of Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and Sra. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four children. However, Sr. Antonio is off away at work while Cleo helps to manage the household, along with Adela (Nancy García García), and take care of the children.
In many ways, Roma pays tribute to the other films Cuarón has crafted. There is a beach sequence in the film, and many events that transpire around the characters remind me of the way Y Tu Mamá También plays out. There is an abundance of unrest in the area surrounding the government, but it is in the background, and not central to the story of the film. At one point, the kids want to go see Marooned (1969) in the theater – a film featuring astronauts stranded in space, which I didn’t know existed…it was clearly an influence on the plot of Gravity. These connections imply the story of Roma is far more personal to Cuarón that may initially be clear, but knowing very little about the filmmaker’s past and the cultural context of Mexico City of the time, some of those things are lost on me.
The big change to this film from Cuarón’s others is that instead of Emmanuel Lewbeski as his cinematographer, Cuarón took on the job himself. He’s clearly learned some from his usual cinematographer, as many of the shots are long takes with wide lenses, allowing the audience to really be in the space with Cleo. The film is subsequently gorgeous and often reveals information in unique ways. This can be observed during the opening of the film, where we are staring at tiles from above with no real sense of where we are until water comes washing over them. A reflection in the puddle reveals the sky, tellings us we are outside, which is confirmed as a plane flies by. The camera eventually tilts up to introduce Cleo as she is scrubbing the driveway of the house. It is slow-going, but ultimately telling of the character and her situation – and our patience is rewarded.
There isn’t a single thing to explain why I didn’t love this film the way other critics seem to have. Maybe I simply don’t put black and white movies with artful cinematography at the front of my movie checklists as some may. I tend to value story and characters far more to the aesthetic choices made by the filmmaker. While I empathize with Cleo, some of the other characters have the opposite effect, taking me out of the film. Cleo is the servant, but she is treated at times as a member of the family. However, they still treat her as a servant first and foremost. In one moment late in the film after we have clearly been told how important Cleo is to the members of the household, they are quick to put her back into the servant role and request so many things from her with disregard to her own well-being.
There are some moments where the dialogue, or at least the translated form, feels so unnatural and melodramatic its hard not to be aware that you are watching a movie. Some of the cinematic choices have the same effect, drawing attention to themselves. If Cuarón meant for that to happen, the reasons are unclear. It’s possible that another viewing or doing some research about the era the film is set could help add context for the movie to have a larger impact on me, but alas, the first viewing didn’t grab me in that way.
Roma is an expertly crafted film that will definitely resonate with viewers differently. While I have no real complaints about this movie, it isn’t one of my top choices of the year. This movie is definitely worth a watch and the highest caliber film that Netflix has released to date…but it isn’t one causal movie watchers will enjoy. Roma earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.