I have been anticipating Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, Roma, since its warm reception around the festival circuit last year. It’s been six years since Gravity, a film that swept the board with its accolades, both technical and artistic. After making several high-profile, comfortably budgeted, ‘Hollywood’ films, Cuaron brings us Roma, his first Spanish-language feature since Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Roma centres around Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a housemaid for a middle-class family in the Colonia Roma, a suburb of Mexico City, in 1970–71. The family consists of parents Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio, their four young children and Sofia’s mother, Teresa. Evidently, Cuaron draws from his childhood, having grown up in a family like Sofia’s; these series of events are full of rich detail. Dubbed as his most personal film yet, you can really feel the grooves of his fingerprints in the frame.
Cuaron’s 1970s Mexico City is brought to life within the shot. Again, Cuaron employs his trademark “wandering frame” whereby the camera is distracted by the stories of those who are not the main subjects of the film. The world that that our protagonists inhabit is fully realised and given context. A scene that plays out in a furniture shop is placed in the background of violent demonstrations, now historically known as the Corpus Christi Massacre. Our protagonists come face to face with danger—what started in the background becomes part of our story in the foreground. These shifts of focus happen throughout the film to serve to provide a grounding in reality, and sometimes a liberal construction of reality.
Thematically, there is a lot that you can unpick from the film, but these tiny details were made to be absorbed not studied. There is a serene and meditative atmosphere to the film like a distant memory, misremembered. Quirky moments of absurdity occur leading to questions in these conscious choices in narrative but is never pretentious. Although the story ventures into episodic melodrama, the mundaneness of everyday life is also captured. These moments of stillness in the scene is complemented by the extraordinary sound design—part of what makes this depiction of 1970s Mexico so full-fleshed is the soundscapes. Strong women characters drive the drama forward; gender politics and social issues are adequately presented but are not the focus of the film. In essence, Roma is a family portrait—a slice of life of an ordinary family, but this is anything but an ordinary film.
Cuaron directs with a quiet confidence. He gets the best out of his cast; the two female central performances from Aparicio and de Tavira are astonishing. The film is, on a technical level, magnificent. The framing always adds to the drama and frustrates us with more tension. Scenes are staged with a beautiful and poetic realism you can find in modern street photography. The drama is never overshadowed by the technicalities, but the two combine effortlessly to provide an overwhelming experience. Without spoiling the film, the scene at the hospital, and the scene at the beach are standout moments that are masterful in their construction and craftsmanship.
As for distribution, Roma is having a limited cinema release, and it’s available to stream on Netflix now. This theatrical run is not just a cynical bid for awards recognition, as Roma is truly a cinematic film that rewards being seen on the biggest screen (and best sound system) available. Many in the film industry express discontent in the great debate over “films” primarily distributed on streaming services and their eligibility for “film” awards. Roma serves to prove that great cinema that deserves recognition is not limited to its platform—streaming is the future.