Let me ask you a question: have any of you who are currently reading this ever regretted missing a film in a theatre? Okay you can all put your hands down. I have missed my fair share of films in the theatre, and it’s not until I see them later, whether it’s on blu-ray or via streaming that I see “yup, that’s what I missed.” And I don’t know why I don’t go to see them. Maybe it was because I was in school, or more recently been at work, and I’m simply too exhausted to go to the theatre, or I simply can’t will myself to go, especially when you consider the fact that I have to take the train to the nearest bigger town in order to see some of these films. Or it’s just pure laziness, who knows? But having now seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma for the first time, now I really blame myself for not going to see it when I had the chance because this film is one that should be experienced in the theatre, and is indeed a terrific piece of cinema.
Dedicated to Cuarón’s real-life housekeeper, Roma follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the housekeeper to a middle-class family in Mexico City during a few months between 1970 and 1971. In this time we see Cleo’s bond with the family grow, in particular her bond with the mother of the family Sofía (Marina de Tavira), as they learn they must fend for themselves when the men in their lives prove unreliable.
Being a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón and having seen several of his films there were certain things I expected from this, most notably his famous penchant for long takes. And indeed there are many long takes throughout the film, but unlike say Gravity or Children of Men none of them are ever showy or give you the feeling that they’re simply there to impress the audience in a “look at what we can do with this cinematic technique”-manner, like say 1917 felt to me. The long takes in this are much more akin to the long (or I should say “longer”) takes in films like The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where they remain static for a lot of the film with minimal movement beyond pans or subtle dollies and/or tracking shots. What the long take does in this case that I didn’t feel in 1917 (although I may have been too harsh on it, have to give it a revisit) is a sense of immersion into the world of its characters which underscores the idea of how we’re all deeply defined by our surroundings, be they social or political. If there was one longer take that stood out to me more than others, and no I’m not talking about the shot on the beach, is one where Cleo is simply walking around the house turning off all the lights, as the camera follows her from the center of the room doing a 360 degree turn. Other than being efficient for further establishing mood it reminded me of a similar shot in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, albeit less frenetic.
The second thing that makes Roma special for me is how well the emotional heft works so well in conjunction to the technical side. First of all, hats off to Yalitza Aparicio because she brings so much sympathy and warmth to the role that makes you immediately root for her. It also probably helps that she is simply a nice person trying to make it through in difficult circumstances. I’m all for movies depicting morally ambiguous characters or straight up unlikeable sonsabitches, but every once in a while I will simply ask for a likeable main character as that can be equally rewarding on an emotional level, to the point where I almost cried during some moments towards the middle and end of the film. She brings humanity to an already human role.
So Roma managed that very tricky thing of being both technically brilliant yet also immersive and character-driven. But the third thing, and perhaps the most important thing that makes it special and moving, is how it feels like slices of real life. The film was shot in chronological order, with the actors only being given their lines and scenes on the day of the shoot. What this unorthodox technique does is it gives a spontaneous feeling to the film that feels closer to real life than traditional dramaturgy. And that’s really the true potential of cinema, is it not? What other artform can better depict the real world and real time and real people than cinema?