"We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone."
One of the unique ways in which movies excel as an art form is their ability to transport us to new planes of existence. We can bear witness to new environments and witness people completely alien to ourselves experiencing their own unique lives. On both the small and large scale, we are given windows into different worlds that shed light on areas we were once completely unaware of, and work as empathy machines to place us within the emotional state of another human being. All of this, brings me to ‘Roma’.
In the early 1970s, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a live-in housekeeper to an upper class family. As she lies on the fringes of the family’s drama but slowly becomes enveloped in it over the course of a year, she herself has to reckon with her own personal issues as her life outside of work becomes decidedly more complex.
The movies of Alfonso Cuaron are not defined by their basic premises. In 2001 he made ‘Y Tu Mama Tabien’, a road movie about sex-crazed teenagers which became a profound statement concerning generational dysphoria and the larger cultural changes enveloping their country. Then in 2006 he made another masterwork named ‘Children of Men’ a dystopian science fiction tale that transcended its own premise to comment on the broader nature of the human spirit, from its ugliest side to its most innocent. These are broad and thematically rich stories framed around the intimacy of a few people and their unique struggles. It is exactly the same storytelling philosophy that drives ‘Roma’.
The very first shot of the film lingers on a water slowly flowing down a stone driveway as it is cleaned, in the reflection of that water we see a distant plane in the sky as it flies silently overhead. Details like this mean that as a viewer you are never unaware of the wider world around the characters at the centre of ‘Roma’. At the same time however, you feel so intimately familiar with these characters that you feel every iota of their own drama as it unfolds. It is an intensely personal story set against the backdrop of a larger one.
You can see this in Cuaron’s visual style. Having shot the movie himself in black and white, there is something surreally distant yet beautifully familiar about the colour palette of the movie. Just as the starkness of the black and white make certain scenes feel all the more emotionally raw, the lower contrast utilised in other significant moments bestows the film with a certain warmth. The sheer variety of environments within ‘Roma’ also gives Cuaron a multiplicity of settings to shoot in unique tones and contrasts.
However, this array of landscapes never feels jarring because of the consistent visual language underpinning the entire production. If ‘Roma’ is concerned with the micro within the macro on a narrative level, it is following the same ideology on a visual spectrum as well. Cuaron rarely uses close ups, intently framing the characters against the wider world which they inhabit. So many shots begin at a medium angle only to pull out and reveal a vast expanse of people, objects, and landscapes.
It is this aspect of ‘Roma’ which distinguishes it as a technical marvel. Had Cuaron played too freely with this technique his tableaus would have risked looking cluttered or chaotic. But he succeeds in finding clarity within them time and time again. Just orchestrating such a scene is a feat in itself, but to never lose sight of the scene’s focus, to choreograph the most gigantic of set pieces whilst drawing the viewers’ attention directly to a single point of focus, is an astonishing achievement. It’s one that would be the highlight of any film it appeared once in, yet Cuaron makes this his consistent visual style.
This integration of empathy and scope is what allows ‘Roma’ to be such an immersive experience. Its imagery is so striking and executed on such a large scale that it can rightfully be called poetic, but it’s a kind of poetry that is unafraid of revelling in the details of its surroundings. Perhaps the great unifier of Cuaron’s personal and technical vision his is affinity for details, for small nuances both in the background of his scenes and the forefront as his characters grapple with the subtleties of their own experiences.
Another important aspect of the hypnotic immersion that ‘Roma’ evokes is the complete commitment from its cast. I hesitate to even refer to refer to them as performances because I was so utterly transfixed by the people on screen to a point where I never even thought of them as actors. There was not a second for which I did not believe in the characters as they were presented. I no longer saw them as recreations of people on screen, they were simply people. They were fully formed individuals whose lives I was watching unfold with as much conviction in their existence as I would for any semblance of reality. As the film climaxes in a series of emotionally fraught scenes I distance myself from the depicted events or draw a distinction between this narrative and the film as a constructed entity. The result was a deeply affecting and achingly personal story from which I had no escape.
Cuaron has stated that ‘Roma’ is a tribute to the women who raised him, and that personal angle is easy to distinguish from the first frame to the last. Not merely in the care with which he crafts each aspect of the movie, but also in its very structure and essence. It unfolds like a memory, but not in a vague or meandering sense. Every scene is carefully constructed and deliberately placed, however the flow from one scene to another refuses to be defined by time or location. It recounts the emotional weight of the experiences these characters undertake, and showcases them with the utmost empathy for what is transpiring.
Ultimately it is difficult to summarise ‘Roma’ through words. The culminated experience of watching the film is such a powerful one that it really must be seen to be believed. It’s a film that makes you forget your own notions of art being a constructed entity. You find yourself completely immersed within the portrait Cuaron has presented, and feel the impact of every narrative turn and character moment as they are displayed before you. It is rare for ambition of this scale and intimacy of this profundity to be reconciled, but that is exactly what ‘Roma’ achieves and it is magnificent to behold.
A technical masterwork where the audacity of its spectacle is equalled only by the deeply personal atmosphere felt for every second, ‘Roma’ is Cuaron’s magnum opus.