One of the greatest strengths of film as an art form is its innate ability to create a sense of empathy. The most affecting films are the ones we relate to most closely, not necessarily because we sympathize, which is merely to feel sorrow for a misfortunate without ever truly understanding the deeper connotations behind it, but because we empathize, meaning that we understand how another feels because we’ve had those same emotions before. This is why films are about people and not simply things or ideas (and if they are, they’re often afforded anthropomorphized qualities so that we can better relate to them). We can relate and understand daily struggles because they’re what meet us each and every day when we wake up and go about our lives. Not every day is extraordinary, but then again, a single day in the span of a lifetime doesn’t need to be anything but that.
Roma is all about those ordinary days, and when put together, they become something extraordinary because they highlight the tumultuous, difficult life of a single individual, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Though she is quiet, seemingly experiencing life without ever interacting with it, there’s a deep empathy for Cleo that Cuarón earns because he makes the effort to craft Cleo as a genuine human being. We are not always the driving force in our own lives. That changes from incident to incident. But then again, we are never truly passive either, always digesting information and taking in the scene around us even if we don’t physically or verbally react. Aparicio, who makes an extraordinary debut here, is so naturalistic and believable in the role that you would swear she was truly Cleo in real life. She’s someone we all know, a woman who endures insurmountable odds but keeps moving, working selflessly and tirelessly for others, perhaps at the expense of her own happiness.
In its exploration of a truly compelling central character, Roma is at its strongest. But as a whole, the film just comes a bit short of the lofty expectations placed upon it by the critical acclaim it received and by virtue of existing in the filmography of a filmmaker who truly knows how to use the cinematic medium to tell incredibly affecting, thematically rich stories. Alfonso Cuarón is a personal favorite filmmaker, and while it’s not hard to agree that Roma is his most personal effort to date, it’s unfortunately also the messiest thus far. That doesn’t mean it comes without its own wealth of riches, as Cuarón once again successfully mines from the melodrama genre to come up with some worthy, feminist ideals. But Roma is perhaps too languorous, slow and painterly for no apparent purpose. It’s clear Cuarón wanted the film to represent a window into a life often unrepresented by film. That’s a beautiful intention and one of the greatest appeals and strengths of foreign film. If only the film had used the cinematic language a bit more tightly, it would feel less observational and more resonant.
Nobody can deny that Roma is a beautiful film. The cinematography is sharp and gorgeous, with each shot capable of being a portrait that could be hung up in a museum or gallery. There’s a patience with the camerawork not afforded to most pictures these days, and Cuarón’s use of black and white cinematography is lovingly evocative of the melodramas of film’s past. There is truly life bursting within each frame. At the same time, while most of Cuarón’s films use dynamic camerawork to heighten a sense of emotion or even tension, Roma holds on its images too long, to the point where they might as well be still. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it feels like the film has lost a sense of momentum when it comes to the narrative. Stronger cinematic editing could’ve helped. Commendably, the film is not a series of shot-reverse shot storytelling, but Cuarón’s dedication to making each moment feel real and fully in-sync with the mechanics of real world time often takes away some of the drama afforded by a more dramatic approach. Why not use film techniques? Cuarón’s approach makes sense conceptually. But in execution, it seems like a missed opportunity to combine the earlier sentiment with strong use of film language.
Roma is also a bit too long for its own good. Were the film about half-an-hour shorter, something that could’ve absolutely been achieved with more concise editing, the experience might’ve been stronger and more focused. Admittedly, Roma only ever presents itself as a character study of sorts. It’s not a sweeping epic like Gone with the Wind, although its melodramatic aspirations do lend itself to comparison to that film, particularly in some of the establishing shots of both nature and the city, but it feels more of a piece with something like Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, which used the landscape of a foreign land as a visual representation of a much more internalized, personal story. But too often, Roma does feel unnecessarily drawn out. The individual scenes all yield pearls of their own accord, and drawing out those moments only serves to diminish their quality.
The film is redeemed greatly by its thematic subtext. Cuarón is no stranger to the melodrama. His previous films A Little Princess, Children of Men, and Gravity were all unique takes on the genre, which has been around since the birth of narrative filmmaking. Melodrama desires to explore and draft up a definition behind nationalism, which is inherently difficult to define just because it seems to differ between nation to nation, person to person. It’s the right genre to use in Roma, which explores a turbulent time during Mexico’s history in the 1970s. There’s a great juxtaposition of beauty and life amidst destruction and chaos. A sequence where Cleo goes shopping for a crib is interrupted by a violent riot; a family vacation is tarnished by an all-consuming fire. But then the inverse is also true. Cleo loses her child, but has motherly love towards the children she cares for, going so far as to risk her own life for them. And then there’s the feminist overtones, where Cuarón once again proves he’s one of the few male directors who is capable of understanding the difficulties of a woman existing in a world structured by patriarchy. In Roma, Cleo is seemingly under attack by just about everything. It’s not just men who mistreat her, but richer white women, her own body, and even the mercurial environment around her.
The film is also an interesting piece of canonical work for Cuarón. Many of his past efforts are brought back up thematically, weaving together a film that is both personal for what it meant to Cuarón growing up, but also as a culmination of where his career has led him thus far. There’s sibling tension in a film that lacks parental responsibility, accumulating in a strange relationship with a maternal figure, which was the crux of Y Tu Mamá Tambien. The empathetic portrayal of women navigating narrow, difficult spaces while longing for home recalls Gravity, which also gets a nod in the form of a theater trip by the family to see the film Marooned. There’s an interest in the vulnerability of women, particularly pregnant women, in a world overrun by a masculine government, a la Children of Men. It’s a rich tapestry, and a testament to Cuarón as a filmmaker that these themes don’t feel necessarily retreaded but reworked, revitalized, and repurposed.
In that sense, Roma should be his masterpiece. Alas, ambitions don’t always equal guaranteed success. To be perfectly fair, Roma is a great film. Had it been tighter, more cinematically-inclined, it could’ve surely been masterful. It falls short, but not for a lack of trying, reaching for something truly lofty and exciting. If anything, it shows that we need more films like this one, that allow us into a perspective, viewpoint, or worldview that feels so specific, lived-in, and deeply empathetic. There’s a homogenization in Hollywood that’s truly disturbing, and so films like Roma will always be important for the ways they stand against that standard. Does that mean Netflix should be praised? Probably not, since they’ve essentially placed the film in a state of limbo by releasing it on a platform ill-suited for its big-screen aspirations. But that, my friends, is a long conversation for another day.