By Nikola Grozdanovic
Within a few days of the Oscar nominations where it trounced the entire field with a walloping 10 nominations (tied with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite – a drastically different kind of period drama), Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white critical darling Roma has arrived at Cypriot cinemas. It’s a welcome surprise as the film has been available on Netflix since December, but thanks to the streaming giant’s vigorous strategising to give the film a theatrical run (and thereby qualify it to become the first-ever Netflix Best Picture nominee) we have the opportunity to get immersed in this gorgeously shot, intimate piece of modern cinema art on the big screen. If you understand Spanish or can read Greek subtitles, take that opportunity before it’s gone.
You don’t have to read a single word about the film’s back story to tell that Roma comes from a deeply personal place in Cuarón’s heart. Apart from being the director, he also wrote, shot, edited and produced the picture. Set in Mexico in the early 1970s, against the backdrop of some kind of political upheaval involving students that’s mostly used for atmosphere and symbolism, the film follows the story of live-in housemaid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her life with the upper-middle-class family she works for. The matriarch of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), has four children to take care of by herself – her doctor husband is hardly in the picture because he’s too busy doing research in Quebec. Cleo is the stoic saint who silently holds everything in place while the four kids run around acting their age and Sofia slowly unravels due to the increasingly suspicious absence of her husband.
It takes a good 40 minutes for the film to kick into its second act (yes, this is slow cinema) for Cleo reveals some big news to the man she’s been casually dating. From there on, the story slowly percolates, bubbles and builds with intangible tension that permeates with honest, real-life experience – heading towards a truly cathartic moment on the beach.
Roma is really nothing like any of Cuarón’s previous films. All the technical grandeur of Gravity and Children of Men, the precise narrative construction of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the fantastical action of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – everything has been stripped down and discarded. The flashy colour literally washed away and replaced by a stark, almost cinema verite slice-of-life examination of the kind of people who hardly ever get this kind of cinematic attention. This turns out to be a bit of a double-edged sword.
The authenticity of Cleo’s life and her experiences – her surroundings, her condition, the way everyone treats her – feels intensely real (it comes as no surprise to learn that the movie is autobiographical in nature, based on Cuarón’s own childhood and the maid that took take care of him and his siblings while they were growing up). So real, in fact, that if you let yourself be swayed by the film’s methodical rhythm, with its slow pans and tracking shots swinging like a hypnotist’s pocket watch, Cleo and Sofia’s heart-rendering predicaments will transcend the screen and become something larger. The true measure of success with a film like Roma rests on the audience’s ability to stop caring about everything they think a movie needs in order to be interesting – flashy characters, complex plotlines, suspenseful and gratifying conflicts – and really feel like they’re exploring the hidden passageways of someone’s reconstructed memories. It’s a very powerful and moving thing, if you’re able to suspend the belief.
The difficulty is that the director has to be just as cinematically intuitive and fluent as some of the greatest who ever lived to pull off such a transcendental feat. Cuarón gets close in certain scenes (watch out for Profesor Zovek, who almost steals the entire film in a five-minute sequence and encapsulates the thematic core in a single line: “The only miracle resides in your own will”) but falls just short. He’s a showy director by nature, and regardless of how different Roma is to all of his previous films, this leopard still has his spots. Obvious scenes of foreshadowing, overt symbolism and an unmistakably pretentious tone in certain moments (watch out for a random Scandinavian song during a forest fire) break the immersion.
Next to the film’s glacial pace and humdrum narrative (on the surface, at least), something else audiences may struggle with is Cleo’s drab personality. She’s an introvert, and though her resilience is what’s rightly being celebrated in Roma, first-time non-professional Aparicio portrays her exactly as she should: meek and solemn with a great strength that’s completely internalised. How long she lingers in your mind after the credits roll depends entirely on how much emotional currency you’re willing to invest in her.
Roma is a challenging experience, no doubt. It requires patience and an open mind, but lovers of black and white cinematography, and cinephiles who have the sensibility to swap out entertainment value for artistic integrity, may just find themselves watching their favourite film of the year.
DIRECTED BY Alfonso Cuarón
STARRING Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Diego Cortina Autrey
MEXICO 2018 135 mins