It may be that you have to be a bona fide cinephile to appreciate Roma, which is unique in both its subtlety and depth, and really takes its time. If you’re not given to noticing impressive feats of cinematic execution, you might genuinely be bored. The Venn diagram of lovers of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and lovers of foreign intellectual meditations like this one must have the tiniest sliver of overlap.
Distributed by Netflix, Roma has had an unconventional rollout. It opens in theatres today (December 6), only one week before it will be available streaming. Advocates for the film insist it’s an immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen — I took them at their word, and shelled out $17 to see it at Seattle’s unparalleled best movie theatre, the Cinerama. The guy who came out to introduce it raved about its sound mixing: “This will be the best movie you’ve ever heard,” he said. What an odd selling point. So it’s like a radio play, but with pictures?
I have to be honest. I watched the first half or so of Roma wondering what all the fuss was about. Alfonso Cuarón, who serves as cinematographer for the first time on a film he also directs, keeps his camera lingering on a 1970 middle-class Mexico City family living in the neighborhood the film is named after (which is never actually mentioned onscreen). We see them go about their day to day lives.
The central character is the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and when we first see her, she is gathering laundry. She cooks, she makes tea, she gathers dishes — she’s part of the family, at least so far as the four children, three boys and one girl, are concerned. In one scene, in the middle of gathering dishes as the family sits on a couch watching TV, she sits on a discarded couch cushion on the floor next to the couch. Within minutes, however, the kids’ mom is asking her to get them a drink.
The many wide, tracking shots packed with astonishingly well-choreographed action in Roma don’t quite register for some time after they’ve started — in some cases, after the movie has ended — because so much of the first half of the film is in quiet observance of this family. The basic beats of the story arc could not possibly be simpler. Then comes the gripping, tense scene of Cleo giving birth, and its one-shot chaos is reminiscent of the birth scene in Cuarón’s jaw-dropping Children of Men (2006). This time, however, instead of being a ray of light in a truly bleak world, that dynamic is inverted.
The key difference between the feats of editing, cinematography and production design of Children of Men and Roma are that in the former film, one could argue that Alfonso Cuarón was showing off. This time, the details are so subtle they are easy to miss, as you very slowly yet very assuredly become invested in the goings-on of this family. Even the truth about the kids’ mother and father’s marriage takes its sweet time to reveal itself.
And then, a string of visual set pieces, seamlessly woven together. Cleo looking on dumbstruck at babies in a hospital nursury when an earthquake hits. Witnessing “El Halconazo,” or the 1971 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, through a set of second-story windows while crib shopping. A New Year’s Eve forest fire fought by nearby revelers suddenly tasked with passing buckets of water to splash upon the flames, in a chain stretching from a nearby lake. An unbroken shot from shore, well into the waves of the ocean, and back to the beach again, as Cleo goes out to retrieve two kids who swam out too far, even though she herself can’t swim. Details here and there making lasting impressions: earthquake rubble on top of a hospital nursery’s baby incubator. Onlookers at the New Year’s Eve fire calmly sipping from their champagne glasses.
Almost entirely constructed as recreations of Cuarón’s own memories, Roma is packed with detail, but because he refuses to sensationalize any of them, they can be easy to miss. Cleo’s life is marked by hardship, but she herself barely seems to notice. The problems of the family that employs her seem almost laughable by comparison, but she serves as a sort of rock for them.
Roma has clear sociopolitical implications regarding where class and race intersect — Cleo is of indigenous descent. One wonders how this presentation plays within activist circles in Mexico, and what might be considered offensive or overwrought. The story is plainly told from Cleo’s point of view, though, and its presentation seems to be devoid of cliché, at least from my admittedly limited, white-American perspective.
If anything seems to be typical of Alfonso Cuarón movies, it’s that they tend to be marvels of cinema in nearly every way except one. That one flaw seems to vary. Children of Men suffered from glaring implausibility. Gravity (2013), a stunning achievement in visual effects, was thin on story. Roma suffers no such problems, but the acting is . . . not the best. Not only are all the actors (who speak both Spanish and indigenous languages) completely unknown to American audiences, they seem to have no real acting training either.
One could argue that the actors are themselves often props, part of a succession of elaborately designed action-dioramas. It’s easy to go back and forth on this, the idea of “authenticity” when it comes to the acting in Roma. They may not seem schooled in acting technique, but maybe that makes them somehow more real. I found the acting far less compelling than the presentation at first, but — well, that birth scene is really an emotional gut punch, from which no one, in the film or in the audience, quite recovers.
All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.