Alfonso Cuaron has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director working today. The Mexican auteur has produced such hits as Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Gravity (the latter which one him a Best Directing Oscar). The filmmaker had been on a hiatus of sorts, with Gravity being his last film in 2013. However, the director is back with a very different film.
Roma is a semi-autobiographical film of life in 1970s Mexico City. The title comes from the affluent neighborhood where the film takes place. We follow the maid/nanny named Cleo (Yaltizia Aparicio) of a particular family (supposedly modeled on Cuaron’s).
The film is far from the tension-fueled rides of Gravity and Children of Men, or the coming-of-age stories of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter. Instead we get a very slow, quiet, and poetic tale that is an exercise in portraying memory. Cuaron supposedly would recreate each scene from his experiences, and thus had a very calculating and precise conduct in every aspect of the film. You can tell, as every decision and tweak in Romais done with a very particular purpose. This ranges from how every scene is usually done in one wide-shot, to the dialogue itself; where every line could be taken and analyzed for learning purposes in film school. Cuaron is successful in controlling the film fully, so that audiences see and experience precisely what he wants them to, be it grief, tension, or confusion.
The film doesn’t really have a story, we’re just following Cleo in little vignettes as she goes about her life. And yet while not having a real plot, there is a narrative and an arc, it seems contradictory and impossible and yet Cuaron through subtle details manages to make it possible.
By keeping the camera far away from the actors, there’s a certain proximity that this brings to the viewer. We feel like we’re observers in a scene, watching from afar rather than being shoved into the pores of a film-star’s nose. This makes the acting much more difficult, as it has to be more similar to theater than anything else. For the main role Cuaron cast a non-actor in Aparicio, and the Mexican performer delivers a star-making turn by giving us a three-dimensional Cleo that seeks to be strong for the children she cares and yet intermittently seeps emotion.
The film is a poetic masterpiece, however, the style and tone is so unique and specific to Cuaron that you have to be in a proper and relaxed mindset in order to enjoy this film. One cannot simply switch this on like a superhero film or a heist flick in order to disconnect; there is a certain amount of participation and focus that you must employ. Because of this, the film might not connect with everyone, the pace might be too slow and plot might seem inexistent. However, with the proper mindset and a sprinkle of film snobbishness, this film will be a wonder to any who get to experience it.