I’ll never forget the night I watched Children of Men and fell in love with Alfonso Cuarón. I was about 16-17 years old, it was 3 a.m. and the movie showed up on HBO. I had been wanting to see it for years but hadn’t been able to. For some background, I was raised Mormon so R-rated films were a big no-no for most of my life up until that point. I proceeded to watch Children of Men with the volume down low and sat inches from the screen so I could still hear it. I kept the volume low partly because I didn’t want my mom to wake up and find me still awake and partly because I didn’t want my mom to wake up and find me still awake and watching an R-rated movie. Watching a Cuarón film on a television with the volume low is certainly not the optimal way to watch his films, but it did the trick. Children of Men stands as one of my favorite films of all time (I hold it as one of the 3 best films made this century), and Cuarón as one of my favorite filmmakers. It’s a shame that we’ve only gotten two films from him since, but both are momentous works of cinema that more than make up for the wait. Roma is yet another masterpiece from a filmmaker seemingly only capable of them.
Taking place in Mexico City from 1970-71, Cuarón creates a singular work that transports us back to the socio-political upheaval of the time as well as an intimate, auto-biographical remembrance of the incredible, brave and loving women who raised Cuarón – following the story through Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a housemaid of a well-to-do family in Mexico City.
Cuarón makes the move to the cinematographer’s chair for this one as well and does an impeccable job of it. His regular cinematographer and master of cinema Emmanuel Lubezki had to drop out due to scheduling, and Cuarón doesn’t miss a beat. Cuarón wrings such definition and detail out of the natural light in his black and white cinematography. And with Cuarón, Roma has its fair share of long takes that are transcendent and intimate. Cuarón deserves a nomination for best cinematography as well as best director. I hope this further propels a trend of directors acting as the cinematographers on their films. It’s yet another window into their artistry and soul. Paul Thomas Anderson delivered divine work when he did it on Phantom Thread last year. For what it’s worth too, Jeremy Saulnier also shot Blue Ruin. Not many directors do it because only the great ones can.
There were so many shots and details within the shots in Roma that just made me go “How in the hell did they pull this off?” There’s a shot where a buff dude in spandex is demonstrating his prowess calmly while a plane flies directly overhead above his fingers, almost like he is somehow willing it there. There’s a long tracking shot where a family party of wealthy citizens is disrupted by a forest fire that they all go to try to put out, with many of the higher class members almost regarding it with the casualness of a family activity. A drunken man in a bear costume steps forward and begins singing a song of sorrow with the flames behind him. It’s a true sight to behold. A bloody battle between the police and student protesters breaks out as Cleo shops for furniture, and it’s just wondrous the amount of stuff they pull off in a single take.
You get the feeling of being transported into a memory in Roma with how Cuarón constructs it. There’s a part where they watch the film Marooned in a theater, almost like an inception of Cuarón’s idea to make Gravity. The cast is terrific, especially our lead in Yalitza Aparicio. You just never feel like she’s trying too hard, she’s just such an authentic screen presence. Her love for these kids just feels real. The sound design is heavenly. I thought First Man had the sound awards all wrapped up, but Roma has given us a competition here. I know I’m like 1 of 3 people that actually cares about the sound awards, but Jesus died for my sins too, right? The ethereal quality of Cuarón’s cinema starts immediately from the opening image, as soapy water runs across a tile surface, reflecting a plane flying overhead. The water washes over us like lapping waves on a beach. It’s immediately transportive, immersive cinema that few filmmakers can create. I do appreciate that I had the opportunity to see this in theaters rather than just on my couch on Netflix. I implore you to go see this film in theaters if you can, Cuarón is a filmmaker who demands to be seen on the largest cinematic format possible. Netflix needs to know that there is an audience for at least their higher-profile films to exist in theaters.