How do you follow up a technological game changer that truly transported audiences into the black void of space? If you’re Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron, you sink gracefully back to earth, finding both comfort and terror in the grounded and familiar. Roma is a deeply personal story for the lauded director, returning him to 1970s Mexico City with this small yet somehow also sweepingly epic tale of a year or so in the life of an upper middle class family. A clear contender for not only the Golden Lion in Venice, but the Oscars too, it announces Netflix as a major awards player like never before.
We see the family through the eyes of their live in maids Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), which allows the film to exist in two worlds from the off. We see the opulence of Mexico’s elite in sharp contrast to the more barren and desolate rural spaces of the poor, and though this disparity drives many of the film’s grander events (an arson fire and a deadly riot to name a couple), it doesn’t always occupy the centre of Roma’s story. Instead, Cuaron largely eschews a plot in favour of painting an ebullient portrait of everyday existence.
The world of Roma is a living, breathing one, the black and white cinematography never proving alienating and every carefully composed shot just absolutely filled with life. Wide panning shots and long takes are the order of the day and there a very few moments of stillness. Whether it’s a band playing in the background or kids playing football across dusty plains, there’s always something to catch your eye. It’s a delight to look at, one of the most visually sumptuous films of the year topped only, perhaps, by fellow monochrome epic Cold War.
Every character is wonderfully drawn, from the leads like Cleo and Adela to the infrequently seen man of the house. In just 30 understated seconds, Cuaron lets us know everything we need to about him before we even see his face, scraping his giant midlife crisis car down the family driveway that he knows is too narrow to accommodate it. Across the board, the acting is tremendous, Aparicio carrying the entire film on her astoundingly impressive debut, Marina de Tavira terrific as Cleo’s frazzled but caring employer Senora Sofia, and a whole host of lovable and layered child performances. In having Aparicio and Garcia at the centre, Roma also makes the bold and important step of placing the indigenous Mixtec language at the heart of a film bound to attract widespread critical acclaim and mainstream attention.
A lot of this attention will no doubt come from the fact that Roma’s main release is on Netflix. 2018 is a huge year for the platform as a bonafide movie studio (Mute notwithstanding), with a startlingly good line up of original films, and it’s cheering to know that Roma will get a huge worldwide push. That said, you should still try to seek it out during its limited cinema run – not only for the visuals, but for exceptional sound design.
Much as every shot contains tonnes of activity, so too does the sound work to create an immersive soundscape. Background conversations and general hustle and bustle filter in from all angles. It’s never intrusive, but the effect of pulling you right in to the locations would be dulled by watching Roma on a laptop, which could render its luxurious pace a bit more of a problem. At points, it does feel a little too slow, the emotional engagement coming and going in waves, but it all pays off with a transfixing, terrifying final set piece involving young children and a strong current.
It’s in this moment that you realise not just how invested you’ve become in the characters of Roma but also how well it’s trained you to look for any potential dangers in the background. You become attuned to fine details and start keeping mental track of the kids in Cleo’s care. Cuaron built this world with the utmost personal care – he directed, wrote, produced, edited, and acted as DOP on the film – crafting a cohesive vision that is, for the most part, dazzling.