I suppose I can take a break from these year-end music reviews to talk about a movie for once, since I just saw one of my absolute favorites from this year. Which means that yes, I’m one of those snobs who opted to see Roma on the big screen instead of waiting to watch it on Netflix in less than a week. And do I stand by that decision? Well, considering it’s one of the most absorbing and beautiful filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a while, I do. Though I do at the same time realize convenience is always a decisive factor in life, and really, seeing Roma on any-sized screen will be doing yourself a favor.
Roma is seen through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a housemaid serving a family living in Mexico City in the early ’70s. In bits and pieces, we get to see the relationship between the mother in this family, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her husband Antonio, which seems to be fracturing. Then in the middle of this Cleo finds that she is pregnant, while the father of the unborn child goes missing. This leaves Sofia to act as the caretaker for Cleo as her husband is gone on a “business trip”, while the family becomes closer than ever as they’re pushed into sheer survival mode.
I’m having a bit of a hard time putting my finger on what exactly makes Roma such a memorable film, and it’s certainly not the plot. The fact that it revolves around an unexpected pregnancy certainly lends itself to the stuff of melodrama, but the film never quite veers in that direction. Which is capped off by a pregnancy scene that could have easily gone that way, and yet director Alfonso Cuarón’s matter-of-fact style of shooting makes it quite the opposite.
Which perhaps gets at what makes this film so special: its blend of realism and flights of fancy. In his past films, Cuarón has shown an affinity for these panning and dolly shots that put you right in the time and place the film is in. And Roma does this in a much more restrained way, showing you the small scope of the house this family lives in and the realities of a divided Mexico in the ’70s. While at the same time, Cuaron packs the frame with so many indelible images and amusing characters that seem to be getting into some sort of mundane hijinks just off-screen.
In addition to the gorgeous black and white cinematography, this whiff of whimsy has already led to many Fellini comparisons in regards to Roma. Which is not undeserved. Fellini even made a film called Roma. Also, Fellini’s light approach to depicting the lower and middle class is on display here, while Renoir’s The Rules of The Game also came to mind, due to this juxtaposition of a family and the help that helps them function. Only here we get a much more emotionally resonant relationship between the maid Cleo and her family.
Yet despite all its European influences, Roma still feels very distinctly like a Cuarón film. Granted, it’s taken a little while for it to become apparent what exactly the director’s trademarks are, since he tends to take about five or six years between projects, and its debatable how much say he had over the contents of his Harry Potter movie. But you get plenty of the long takes, the moments of heightened sensory experience, and a general fascination with the idea of motherhood. And done in a way that has the specificity of a moment he’s lived through, but with the breeziness and beauty of a memory caught on film.