ROMA (2018)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Yalitizia Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A year in the life of a middle-class family and their maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

The closing credits of Alfonso Cuarón’s intensely personal, emotionally powerful Roma state unequivocally (in Spanish) that the entire movie was shot on 65mm film.  This is an important choice with a movie that communicates its emotional beats with strong, crisp visuals that don’t feel like a traditional movie.  To me, Roma feels like looking through an old, well-preserved photo album of a family I don’t know.  But the closer I look at the pictures, the more I can intuit how their lives are no less important or vital than my own.

More than most films, Roma exemplifies one of Roger Ebert’s core beliefs about film.  He said that movies “are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

That’s how I felt watching Roma.  I never really felt like I was watching a film.  Director Cuarón (who served as his own cinematographer) uses his camera and shrewd editing to create the idea that I was looking at a fondly remembered memory instead of a traditional, plot-furthering movie sequence.  I didn’t grow up in Mexico or have a maid, but within just a few seconds of the opening scene – hell, during the opening CREDITS – I was sucked into the world of the film.

Another important element of this movie’s success is the exquisite sound design.  Over the opening credits, we see nothing except a close-up of some sort of tiled surface.  Soapy water spills over it a couple of times. We hear a mixture of street sounds, but not a busy street.  At one point a jet airliner flies far overhead, visible in the sky as reflected in a puddle of water. We can hear birds, and people talking and shouting in the distance, and a street vendor, and the occasional dog barking, and…it succeeds in placing you firmly in the world of the movie. It all feels completely organic, not engineered.

I’ve just realized I haven’t said a word about the plot.  The story, in itself, is nothing extraordinary.  We follow several months in the lives of a middle-class family in Mexico from 1970 to 1971.  They have a maid, Cleo, who discharges her duties with efficiency, who is beloved by the family children, who has a life of her own outside of her employer’s household.  Through various personal upheavals, both in her own life and the life of the family she works for, they all grow incredibly close.  …and I can almost hear your eyes glazing over as you read those words.

But, as is the case with every other film, what’s important is not WHAT this movie’s about, it’s about HOW it tells the story.  And Roma, if nothing else, solidifies Alfonso Cuarón’s standing as one of the great modern masters of cinematic storytelling.  In his hands, this humdrum story of middle-class life becomes a hymn to nostalgia. There’s a brief scene of everyone gathered around a television set, watching a variety show.  The sight of their smiling faces, illuminated by the screen, triggered a memory of my own family sitting around the TV back in ancient history, before VCRs and even cellphones(!), and watching the ABC Movie of the Week, like The Towering Inferno or Grey Lady Down.  It’s rare for a film to affect me like that.

I have to tread carefully here, because I want to mention a key event that occurs in the latter half of the film.  It’s immensely harrowing, all shot in one take (indeed, IMDb tells me it was shot only ONCE and not repeated).  In any other movie, I would say that it’s the kind of thing a screenwriter would throw in as a shamelessly manipulative plot twist, designed solely to elicit unearned emotions from the audience.  In Roma, however, the movie has so thoroughly worked its magic that the event, when it happens, is not shameless, but shocking and heartbreaking.  I was not watching an actor or actress.  I reacted as if I was watching a home movie of a real person going through a traumatic event, and it was devastating.  THAT’S the kind of rare cinematic event that I live for.

Roma is a black-and-white film shot in Spanish, with English subtitles, and which leans heavily on visual storytelling.  This may not be your cup of tea.  But if you like film at all, if you like the kind of movie where you can drink in the visuals like you were at a museum where the pictures breathed and lived and loved, then you owe it to yourself to see Roma as soon as possible.

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