By Marc S. Sanders

Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, Roma, is a masterpiece in cinematography, sound, and empathetic storytelling. Shot in beautiful, multi-dimensional black & white, it tells the story of a house servant named Cleo who tends to a family living in the city section known as Roma during the year 1970 in Mexico.

Cleo is portrayed beautifully with quiet reservation by Yalitza Aparicio. I imagine this actress is not well known to mainstream audiences. Perhaps she is not well known to Mexican or Hispanic audiences as well. However, it would be so refreshing if the positive response of this film opens up opportunities for her within more widely known fare, much like Precious did for Gabourey Sidibe.

Cleo seems content to cater to the family that contains four young children and their mother. The father appears stern in his mannerisms until one day he leaves for a conference taking place in Quebec. However, allusions to this conference indicate a different story when his absence lingers on longer than expected. During this year, Cleo gets pregnant by Fermin, the cousin of a friend. Fermin leaves Cleo to deal with the pregnancy on her own, and in the moments when he returns to the story, it is not promising that he will commit to fatherhood.

Cuaron writes and directs a relatively simple story amid turmoil in a very confused country that centers on riots among the young citizens and men who are not noble enough to dedicate themselves to the women that cross their lives. Family is not convenient either. When a conclusion dawns upon Cleo near the end of the film, you can’t help but understand her position. What she has seen is gut wrenching.

To further compliment this work is to appreciate the visual sense and sound of the film. This is not a sci fi special effects extravaganza like Cuaron has accomplished with his Oscar winning Gravity, or the dystopian action depicted in his under appreciated Children Of Men (masterful steady cam work in that film, especially). Cuaron takes advantage of a crowded bustling lower middle class city with an overpopulation of dogs, planes flying overhead, music, and crowded streets of different happenings. I watched this film with my new 7 point sound system and this film is perfect proof that I made a smart purchase. Cuaron hooks your senses to engage you in his setting. Therefore, the setting justifiably serves the title of the film.

The photography is sensational as well. Cuaron hardly does a close up on any of the characters. Rather, he opts to go deeper to show there’s more going on in any one given moment than just what is in front of you. The first example of this is during the opening credits that are displayed over the course of several minutes on a tile paved driveway. First you are just looking at tiles. Then you are looking at Cleo’s soapy mop water splash across the tiles. Now you have a reflection of the sky above and you get a sense of how high the sky goes as a passenger jet plane casually flies overhead. Dimension is gradually introduced and the theme of Cuaron’s filmmaking continues on during the course of the picture.

Later, at a pivotal point in the film, when Cleo delivers her child (I don’t think that’s a spoiler), Cuaron puts the silhouetted profile of Cleo close to his lens and then to the right deeper into the room you watch as the hospital staff tend to the newborn; seeing the baby, seeing the towels held by the staff, watching the staff tend to the baby. Cleo is separated from the activity but she remains in the room, exhausted and discombobulated from what she has just experienced. A moment like this, I would imagine, would be good material for film students to examine. Cuaron proves that what you show in a moment can be limitless in the scope of a lens. Nothing is impossible.

Because the film is in black & white, the activity of the hospital staff never appears to upstage or overshadow the experience that Cleo is enduring. Had this been in color, a viewer could have been distracted by the blood and the sweat and lighting in the hospital room. It’s all there. It’s just not as distracting as a colorized moment might have suggested. Cuaron’s choice of black and white permits you to focus on everything. So, a scene like this is so wisely conceived.

Roma will likely be selected as a nominee for Best Picture and Director. It deserves it, much more so than many other films I saw in what I consider 2018 to be a weak year for inventive filmmaking. I highly recommend this film. If you don’t have a good sound system or a high definition TV to watch it currently on Netflix, then find it at a local cinema. To immerse yourself in this film, requires the best in sound and visual quality.

I will admit that it takes some getting used to reading the subtitles translating both Spanish and Mexican, and Cuaron takes his time setting up his story. You have to be patient with the film. However, I watched the film on Saturday, December 28, 2018 and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Please check out Alfonso Cuaron’s beautiful film, Roma. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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