Few films in recent years have received as much lavish praise as Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. A compilation of critics’ top ten lists has it in the #1 spot with a 200-point lead over the next title. It has been repeatedly called a masterpiece and even, by more than a few writers, one of the greatest films ever made.
Can any movie possibly be worthy of all that hype? Can Roma live up to those expectations?
My answer: It doesn’t, until it does. And then it somehow surpasses them.
Roma is the story of Cuaron’s childhood nanny, an indigenous woman who lived with his middle class Mexican family for decades. Cuaron wanted to depict the early-70s Mexico he remembers, but through the eyes of a character you never see at the center of a film.
First-time actress Yalitza Aparicio does a wonderful job bringing that character, Cleo, to life, both in her interactions with the family and in her private moments as a lover and friend. This is the kind of performance that doesn’t feel like acting and is often overlooked for not being showy enough. But she is truly a marvel.
Roma combines the technical virtuosity of the director’s Gravity and Children of Men with the loving attention to character and place in Y Tu Mama Tambien. I can’t remember the last film I saw that utilized this kind of large-scale epic filmmaking in the service of such an intimate story.
The movie Roma reminds me of most is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Both are essentially plotless, presenting a series of moments — both mundane and profound — that add up to shape a life. In Boyhood‘s case, what sets it apart is the concept of filming the same actors over 12 years. In Roma, it is Cuaron’s absolute mastery of every aspect of his craft.
I’m a big fan of single-shot scenes, but I’ll admit they sometimes seem to have little purpose beyond showing off. At their best, they inspire a sense of awe and excitement about the filmmaking that carries over to the story being told.
Cuaron is the undisputed master of one-shot scenes. He’s so good that often you don’t realize he’s doing it until you’re five unbroken minutes into a bridgetop conversation between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. Cuaron’s philosophy is that every time you cut you remind viewers they are watching a movie. Allowing action to unfold seamlessly puts you inside the environment of the film.
It’s a beautiful irony that the shots announcing themselves as next-level cinematic mastery are the same ones making you forget you’re watching a movie at all. Cuaron does that over and over again in Roma, and at times I found myself breathless over both the events in a scene and how brilliantly they were executed. There are unbroken takes in this film that feel more like magic than something worked out practically on a film set.
Those moments add up as the movie progresses, and the cumulative effect is overwhelming. About halfway through my first viewing, I thought it was pretty good but undeserving of the over-the-top praise. By the time it ended, I was calling myself an idiot for not realizing sooner it’s the best film of the year. I watched it again the next morning and was blown away again from the opening shot.
This is an intensely personal project. Cuaron’s credits include Director, Writer, Cinematographer and co-Editor. He played a key role in casting every part in the film, wanting the actors to look as much as possible like their real-life counterparts. He probably handled the catering.
That emotional investment is evident in every frame. This is a love letter to a woman he never appreciated enough, and to a time and place that transformed him. Somehow he has made a film that is both incredibly specific and truly universal. I’m confident that decades from now Roma will be studied in film schools for its complex technique, while fans will hold it close to their hearts for its simple beauty.
This is the movie Cuaron was born to make. In so many ways, Roma feels like the culmination of a career that already puts him among cinema’s greatest artists.
[Note: I chose today’s SOTD to accompany this review because of the song’s brilliant use in Roma‘s excellent trailer… it does not appear in the film itself.]