Review: ‘Roma’ (life observed, endured, and related to)

Every once in while, a plane passes overhead… even if you’re not on it.

Working for a middle-class Mexico City family in the early 1970s, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is responsible for keeping up the household of Sra. Sofía (Marina de Tavira). When not tending to the couple and their four children, Cleo dates an obsessive young man named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) whom she met through a family connection. Over the course of a year, the trials and tribulations of the family and their place in the world weigh on Cleo, especially in how they mirror her own life.

Director Alfonso Cuarón has had a varied career, from blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity, and Children of Men to more personal films like Y Tu Mamá También. If reports of his inspirations here are accurate, elements of his own childhood are showcased throughout Roma to paint an intimate portrait of his inner thoughts and commentary. With a difficult and involved production (including being robbed and assaulted during filming), is all the talk surrounding the finished Netflix product worthy of the hype?

As a black-and-white period-piece, this Spanish-language film isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially with an observer serving as protagonist. If you see it cold, what’s initially missing is scope; if you don’t know where and when you are, it’s a mystery to be solved from the clues presented: language, vehicles, signage, and surroundings. Unfortunately, viewers want a narrative, not a silent observer. The object of storytelling is to attribute meaning to events, a cause and effect; in that context, there’s no story here: it’s a timeline. The Corpus Christi Massacre tie-in is significant — it deserves to be researched for the unaware — but even the title goes unexplained without looking it up, far more effort than many if not most are willing to put in. Causal viewers may have to work for their rewards, but they’re there to be had; it’s no fluke this film is getting attention.

Cinephiles will note the rich monochromatic contrast and attention to detail, making one consider how much was recreated and how much was special effects. Each scene is delicately and intentionally staged, invoking old Hollywood and especially Italian films of the time. Some shots feel too mechanical, like a camera on a motorized mount, but the scenes are choreographed well to fit within these deliberate moving planes. The technique invokes a need to look at everything because the camera doesn’t direct where viewers should look except through action, a superior use of single-camera framing; in contrast, the 2018 film First Reformed demonstrates how it can also butcher a scene when misused. Alfonso Cuarón wrote, directed, co-edited, and ended up serving as the cinematographer for everything, so he knew what he wanted and planned accordingly.

The main character of Cleo is unexceptional but earnest, someone who doesn’t change nor needs to: a constant in contrast to everything fluid around her. As an intimate disaster film with a feminine focus, it begins and ends with the start and conclusion of a key life event — not Cleo’s, unfortunately — humbly asking viewers to draw their own conclusions when the credits bookend. To be honest, however, most viewers will get no more out of it than the poster/cover shot for the film itself. This isn’t to suggest there isn’t a significance to the ending; we know Cleo isn’t changed, but can the same be said of those having watched?

Roma is rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, language, and unspeakable crimes against a Ford Galaxy.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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