TL;DR – Delightful, heart-breaking, alienating, immersive, full of complicated people in complicated relationships, a film that I would recommend everyone to see.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
There is always an interesting feeling when the credits start to roll and the world comes back into focus, and the wave of emotions that have built up over the last few hours comes crashing down. Do you realise that you just wasted the time on something with no substance, or did your whole world change whilst time stood still? Well, today we look at a film that falls more on the later side of that divide. A world where everything is right and normal, and it all can be pulled out from underneath you in a moment. A film that will stay with me for the weeks and months to come.
So to set the scene, we open in on 1970 Mexico City as Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) washes the tiles of the driveway of the house she works at. We watch as she gets the house ready for the day for her employers Sofía (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and their children Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa) and Adela (Nancy García García). Cleo is an indispensable part of the family, but then she is also not part of the family because she is a maid and this disconnect filters throughout the film. Things in the household shift when Antonio leaves for a conference in Canada and stays longer than planned, and when Cleo meets a man Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and the tension under the surface of Mexico starts to rupture.
cinematic stories can come in all shapes and sizes, they can grab you by the collar
and take you for a ride, they can lull you into a sense of security before
slapping you in the face, or they can shout from the rooftops for all to hear. Roma is a completely different type of cinematic
story, it is like a tide coming in, it
builds slowly, you can watch it creep over the sand, it feels inconsequential,
but before you know it, it has enveloped you. This is Roma, it starts off feeling like just a simple character study
situated in 1970s Mexico, however, this is just a ruse so you let your guard
down and become emotionally invested in someone’s life before the film envelops
you into their narrative.
It takes an incredible amount of craftsmanship to make a story like this work because it takes a concerted effort working on the balance to pull this off. You need to present everything as being commonplace, yet you need to get that pacing just right so people don’t switch off. For example, whenever I had a feeling as to why were we still following a certain plot line, the film would immediately show why it was important to follow this part of the story. It also helps that while everything is presented as normal and straightforward, you can tell that there is tension in the air, both personal and on a national level, all bubbling under the surface.
of the ways you get sucked into the world is through the acting, which created characters
that feel real, to the point that you almost feel like you are a fly on the
wall looking into the lives of real people. No better can we see this is in the
creation and acting of Cleo. Yalitza Aparicio brings warmth and joy to what
could be a very bleak role. There is a clear love to the children that Cleo
cares for, even when the world treats her as disposable. It is that love that connects
you to her, and it is this that makes every time she is grieved so much worse.
I watched Roma with my parents who
are by far not normally people who watch films that roughly fit into that art
house genre. They instantly connected with Cleo, to the point where at one
point my generally conservative mother exclaimed ‘what a prick!’ at a certain character in the film, who in all
fairness was very much being a total prick. It is the acting and of course the writing
that created the character that connects you to them, and this extends right
across the whole cast.
Roma is a character study foremost, but it is also pulling apart some very difficult themes. The first is the intersection of Indigenous and Colonial worlds. Cleo is a maid to an upper-middle class Mexican family and there is a clear power dynamic that exists between the two. The film shows this through the dialogue between the help and their employers, in the way wealth is explored, but also in what language is used. Throughout the film, we have the use of both Spanish and also the Indigenous Mixtec language of southern Mexico, and a thank you to the film subtitling it in the way that you could tell when each was being spoken. Given that the writer/director/cinematographer/editor of the film Alfonso Cuarón came from a similar place in his life, it was clearly not an accident that he is exploring this power dynamic and the damage it can do. As well as this, the setting of the film is also important, because it was during a period when Mexico was in a state of flux. Even if you were not already clued on to what was happening because you know your Mexican history and you spotted the year, you can feel the tension building under the surface. This gives an insight into Latin American history, and also the role that outsiders played in fermenting it, with whispers of gringos, an agitated military, and protests on the horizon. Finally, there is a clear and present theme that many men are just awful, they cheat, they are prone to outbursts of violence, and buying cars that don’t fit in the driveway because you want a status symbol. There is a clear gendered dynamic to the power structures that the film explores, in subtle and not so subtle way. Indeed, I am sure it was entirely an intentional move to frame a penis for a long scene in an entirely un-erotic way.
we can’t talk about Roma without talking about the cinematography, and for good
reason. You see this right from the start as the film opens on some tiles in
black and white, as the credits appear on the screen. From the soundscape, you soon realise that this is not a
static image, but a long take and you
become engrossed in every detail of this tile getting washed. All throughout
the film, the camera moves with a clear
purpose. When the camera locked in one position, it is there for a reason, when
it dances around the room with the precision of a ballet dancer, it is on purpose, when it weaves in and out, it is on
purpose. This means that every camera move draws you in whether it is one of
the films many extraordinary long takes
or a quick insert of a tire rolling over dog poo.
Now, as I have mentioned in the past, I am a sucker for a good long take because I love the craftsmanship of putting it all together. However, in Roma, they almost weaponize the long take and the cinematography in general, and I want to explore that by looking at three extraordinary sequences, but as these are all key plot points it will mean that there will be [MAJOR SPOILERS] for the film in this paragraph and if you have not seen the film, one you should go watch the film, but two, you should skip this paragraph. Throughout the film you are kind of conditioned to expect these long takes as a way of exploring the family dynamics or to watch people unsuccessfully put out a forest fire, however, as the car with Cleo, Teresa (Verónica García), and Ignacio (Andy Cortés) arrive to buy a crib, you feel that something is off, as they arrive at a protest. You pan past all the military men creating a barrier between the protestors and the shops, as businesses hurry to close their shops feeling that something is about to erupt. We are then on the second floor of a building overlooking the protests in the square below, and the normalcy of getting a crib for a maid is juxtaposed with the noise from the protests below. But in a moment everything explodes as people start shooting at the protestors, and we pan over the chaos below, soon people are fleeing everywhere, including into the shop, and the staff and customers look in horror as a man is dragged out of a cupboard an shot in broad daylight. However, as a viewer, all of the falls away, the brutal murder in the background, the screams of the woman watcher her lover killed, the noise of the protests around you, because a gun has appeared in the foreground and you know who it is pointing at, and it sucks all of your attention to it, everything is drawn to this weapon of death, wondering if it is about to explode, and then the camera pans back to reveal the full scene. The next is a long take in a hospital that is full of chaos, as people on the edge of collapse have to endure even more distress. It is a scene that is this juxtaposition of the horror what is going on and then the clinical nature of the staff, that just writing about know is making me emotional because it is crafted in such painful but real way. Finally, there a scene, which comes from the very end of the film, so this is a significant spoiler that I am only discussing because the film is readily available on Netflix. We open on a beach where the children are having one last swim before heading home, Sofía is dealing with the oldest child, and Cleo walks the youngest to the shade while, the two middle children play close to the shore, but the ocean is not careful. Soon Cleo realises something is wrong, and even though she can’t swim, she dives into the ocean to help the children in distress. Here, every wave is a threat, at any moment it could all go wrong. It is a phenomenal moment of filmmaking, not only for the visuals, the emotional impact, but given the dangerous nature of what is happening, the technical work of every department to pull it off is phenomenal. This cinematography is what pulls you completely into this world, and I am sure it was one of the things that meant that it was only at the very end of the film that I realised that there was no musical score, the soundtrack was the sounds of Cleo’s world, the crickets, the birds, the military parades, and the planes overhead.
the end, do we recommend Roma? Yes, yes
we do, on every level we do. It is a moment of cinematic glory, it is unpacking
themes that need to be explored, it is beautifully written, amazingly acted,
and it will suck you into this world in a way few films ever have and ever will
do. It is also a film that is on Netflix right now, so it is easily accessible
in a way that these style of films rarely are. Now I know, this frustrates some
people that believe that you should see it in its full glory on the big screen,
but my parents watched, enjoyed, and were emotionally moved by Roma, and they would not have seen it if
it was not on Netflix because the nearest cinema that would have shown it is an hour travel away from where we
live. I do implore you to give Roma a
watch, explore a culture that might not be familiar to you, and look at the
world through a different set of eyes.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Roma
Directed by – Alfonso Cuarón
Written by – Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematography by – Alfonso Cuarón
Edited by – Alfonso Cuarón & Adam Gough
Starring – Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Nancy García, Verónica García, José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Andy Cortés & Latin Lover
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: na; Germany: 12; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R