I’m sitting in my apartment, ready to watch Roma, the new Netflix movie that has everyone talking. It’s garnering huge awards buzz, and before I even press play, I’m realizing this review is going to write itself. I’m realizing I could just discuss the sad (for us purists) reality that a movie you can only available from home can be nominated – and possibly win – an Academy Award. Also, will there be an audience on the streaming service wanting a film spoken in Spanish (with English subtitles), presented entirely in black and white? Even one from one of the world’s most commercially successful directors?
But I’m not going to make this review all about the state of movie-going in 2018, because observations like those have been beaten to the ground. Frankly, all we need is for one of these Netflix films to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar and I’m sure we’ll have plenty more articles pontificating on that very topic.
No. Instead, I’d like to make this review about another variable. Because any conversation about Roma, with anyone who cares, cannot possibly be had without the mention of writer/director Alfonso Cuarón. He’s an interesting case. He really has no set genre that he likes. From his G-rated fairy-tale A Little Princess (still his highest-rated film), third entry in the Harry Potter saga with Prisoner of Azkaban to his acclaimed space epic Gravity, he’s one of those directors that makes us wait between each new project. Gravity – which netted him a Best Director Oscar, came out in 2013, with Children of Men going back to 2006. Prolific, he is not.
A film should be more than just its director’s vision, but Roma serves as a semi-autobiographical take on Cuarón’s life growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, meaning it’s about as personal a film as we’re likely to get. We’re constantly immersed in various scenes as the camera picks a central location and pans in a circle to make us feel like we’re there. Or perhaps this is for Cuarón to feel like he’s there, once again.
It’s a retelling of his childhood shown through the eyes of his maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the house she tends to owned by a middle-class white family with four children. Sofia (Marina De Tavira), the family’s matron, struggles with depression raising her family as her husband is always “away on business”. Complicating matters is that Cleo becomes pregnant early on, the boyfriend leaving her to fend for herself. We’re shown the dichotomy of these two women, but also their similarities, without their more obvious differences being shoved in our faces.
It’s not like we need a Wonder Woman-type metaphor to grasp how strong the various women here are. Instead, we’re shown something that men simply cannot be – mothers. Helping get this point across is the exceptional performance from newcomer Aparicio. She’s a humbling presence, helping us forget that we’re watching something scripted and actualized, and not a documentary. At one point Sofia exclaims, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” Is this true? Perhaps for many. But even this is a result of what Cuarón wants to convey. There are no positive male figures present (despite the young boy – a stand in for Cuarón), a conscious choice no doubt but also an unfortunate reality for many women across the world. But the lack of hope in men goes along with the cynical tone that envelops much of this film.
All of this is set alongside the backdrop of some mysterious sociopolitical conflict between soldiers and guerrilla groups. As viewers, we’re never privy to what this conflict actually is, but it’s not important. As Cleo’s pregnancy continues to develop, her life and the world around her become more intense and we see the effects of this play out elsewhere. Tonally, Roma is a bit of an oddball, with some (very) subtle comedic sensibilities. A running joke of a driveway riddled with dog poop, for instance. Or the scene with a cult leader that steals a bit of irony from Napoleon Dynamite. But then it parries with deeply dark and seriously depressing moments I’m not going to spoil here – but they certainly hit hard.
From the opening scene, we know we’re going to get a beautifully shot movie, one simple and subtle with hints of seemingly innocuous detail: a closeup of gray tiles. A plane flies by in the reflection of the still water between the tiny waves being washed over them. It’s small, but needs to be pointed out that before the camera pans up, we aren’t even aware that it’s a black and white film. It may even take us a second to catch on initially. It’s not just black and white, but a dry black and white. The ’70s were a dry decade, and lacked a distinct character the decades straddling it had so prominently – and I’m guessing this was even more true in Mexico at that time.
Roma is not for the faint of heart. At times it’s raw and difficult to watch. Not understanding the language only makes everything seem somehow colder. You’re reading words off the screen rather than hearing them for your own comfort. I know I’m “supposed” to like this movie, but would I watch it again? No, but that’s not a slight against its quality. It’s a really great film, expertly made by one of our finest directors. Cuarón always had the potential to make a less-accessible film, and with Roma he finally does. This is probably as self-indulgent a film as he’ll ever make, or we’re likely to get from him. That is hits most of its marks is pretty amazing.