A moving, sophisticated and intimate exploration of domesticity that deserves to be seen in its full beauty on the big screen.
Last time Alfonso Cuarón sat down in the director’s chair, we plummeted into outer space in Gravity. The time before that, we battled for survival in dystopian London in Children of Men. Cuarón’s latest, however, sees the director stripped back to his older, unflinching self. No longer confined to the status of Hollywood’s golden amigo, Roma is Cuarón’s most intricate work to date: a raw melodrama that manages to be even more gripping than watching George Clooney float away into an outer-space abyss.
The suburb of Roma in 1970s Mexico City provides our home for Cuarón’s 2 hour trial of class and domesticity. The streets sprawl with life, the soundscape packed with commotion, but what really comes to the forefront in this tale is the personal. No individual feels more important than another as we flit between even the most mundane aspects of middle-class life (an excruciating but encapsulating scene that spends at least five minutes lingering on a car pulling into a garage springs to mind), but this is most certainly the story of housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Her constant resilience in what is a bleak man’s world shines through the black and white stained frames, and whilst there is certainly no colour in the violent impulses of Roma’s male population, Cuarón creates an ode to the glow of powerful women in the face of a struggle.
It’s impossible to tell that Aparicio has never acted before, with her performance as Cleo providing the crux of a masterpiece. She is stoic, subtle and selfless, a woman we want to cry with in the face of tragedy, and laugh with as she playfully places her own woes behind the needs of those in her care. Fellow female, mother of four Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is equally as impressive, with de Tavira taking a character that could easily send us to sleep and creating a woman whose unease screams from every corner of her face. Sofia masters the household in absence of never-to-return husband (Fernando Grediaga), and for the fleeting moments where Aparicio is not commanding every ounce of our attention, de Tavira masters the screen also.
For the first time in his feature-length works, Cuarón takes hold of the camera. His cinematography is uncompromising, choosing to linger the shot for longer than we ever feel uncomfortable with and forcing us to fearlessly confront the gritty images on display. Most impressive of all are the street scenes, the tracking shots pumping so much energy into riotous danger, teasing us to gaze at the violent spectacle that unfolds then plunging us straight into despair. Each shot is screaming out to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with booming sound pumping from every corner of such expansive and intricate frames. As bashing waves override our senses in the soundscape of one vastly moving scene on a beach towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that a Netflix release is simply not enough – Roma deserves so much more.
As the film draws to a close we feel battered and bruised, as if we have been embroiled in the challenges of the middle-class family that felt so distant just two hours previous. But there is no way we would change this experience for the world. Since its release, Cuarón has described Roma as the ‘most essential movie’ of his career – it would be no overstatement to call it one of the most essential viewing experiences of the last decade.
Roma (2018), directed by Alfonso Cuaron, premiered in the UK as part of this year’s London Film Festival. It will be released later in the year via Netflix.