Consistently wringing gripping emotion out of everyday existence, Roma is as perfect as slice-of-life filmmaking can get.
It takes a special kind of talent, a sensitive eye for the details of connection to take the seemingly mundane and elevate it to cathartic proportions. It’s a modern alchemy of sorts, to take the ordinary and, using nothing but it’s intrinsic elements, transmute it into something of undeniable value. Or maybe it’s a subtle transformation of us, the viewer—a gentle nudge in viewpoint to allow a look at something previously so dismissible in a newly lucid way. Same object, new eyes. Whatever the case, it requires an immense sense of pathos and depth of emotional intelligence, of which, in his new film, Roma, writer/director/cinematographer/editor/auteur Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates near bottomless reserve.
Roma follows Cleo (in an impressively understated debut by Yalitza Aparicio), through her days as a live-in maid to a Mexican middle-class family in early 1970s Mexico City. Some familiar elements are set up early: the four children love her, especially the youngest son and daughter, the parents are both working professionals winding their way in and out of the house as their responsibilities take them. The oil keeping the house functioning smoothly is Cleo, and, emotionally, she is more of a parent to the children than the parents themselves. The father leaves the picture early, leaving only Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her mother Sra. Teresa (Verónica García) as household adults. Cuarón avoids easy clichés here, for even though Sra. Sofia is head of household and can be domineering, she has kindness and tormenting sadness in her too. Great care has been put into all the characters, molding them into three-dimensional people rather than simple caricatures.
Following the thread of three-dimensionality, Cuarón as cinematographer captures a fantastically realized world. The subtle panning of the camera back and forth as action happens in and out of frame lends to a feeling of authenticity and realism, a true cinéma verité style within fictional narrative structure. We get the feeling of a bustling world that extends beyond the confines of the camera rather than one created by it. Cuarón has achieved documentary within fiction, the truest sense of realism through genius subtlety of movement. For a director who’s past resumé has often pushed the boundaries of cinematography and editing, sometimes into gimmick territory, the camerawork in Roma represents a pure distillation of the most effective elements coupled with remarkable restraint.
Adding to the sense of realism is the medium and wide shot selection, letting the actors interact with one another together on screen, often in groups of three, four, or more. The performances benefit from this removed lens, exhibiting an easy naturalism that has us wondering if they’re acting at all. The breezy conversational style of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy comes to mind as something of a comparison, though Roma is much less noisy, much more driven by what’s unspoken. Aparicio in particular is fantastic at this. The level of communication she achieves through the fractional twitches of her face, the emotional conveyance of her eyes, is truly unbelievable. She makes Cleo instantly sympathetic and makes the later gut-wrenching scenes of the film that much more powerful. Her performance, combined with uncompromising camerawork and masterful framing rips your heart out. For a film following the mantra of subtlety at all costs, this is no easy feat. It becomes even more remarkable when you realize there is no non-diegetic music to speak of. There is absolutely no score. No violins tugging our heart-strings, no sad piano dirge. Roma relies entirely on the humanity of the performances and the transportive realism of the camera.
The final character, whose many faces and facets we see as the film winds on, is Mexico itself. From suburban avenues populated with frequent military band marches, to countryside villas for the upper class perched roughly atop older shacks home to farmers and peasents, Cuarón takes us on a tour of the Mexico of his childhood. Again, with the benefit of the documentary-mimicking lens of Cuarón’s camera, we feel Mexico as a living, thriving organism—a real home the characters inhabit, whose relationship to them may change as any human relationship is wont to do over time.
I can’t say enough good things about Roma, which I confidently posit is a career best from Afonso Cuarón. Combining the best elements of his experimentation in his past work with the obvious passion and love he has for his country, culture, and childhood, Cuarón has created something authentic and full of emotional resonance, something unique to him. As a film, it’s an execution of an auteur’s vision on the most successful scale, yet that feels like shallow praise. Words like movie and film don’t carry the weight of recognition it deserves. No, Roma can only be called art.