Cinematic Releases: Roma (2018) - Reviewed

There's a moment early on in Roma, Alfonso Cuaron's understated yet gut-wrenching epic masterpiece, that perfectly sets the tone for both the emotional wallop and the technical craftsmanship that are to follow. Antonio, an affluent early-1970s Mexico City doctor, pulls his lumbering Ford Galaxy into an open-air garage behind a locked gate. The camera expertly pans from the grille, to the stuffed ashtray, to the steering wheel, to the gearshift, to the precariously narrow walls on either side that briefly threaten to knock off a side mirror. The doctor gruffly yet patiently throws the car from drive, to reverse, to drive, to reverse, to drive, as the camera continues to jump from his clenched jaw, to the gas pedal, to the sprightly yet underloved family dog wagging his tail expectantly, and then finally to victory as the car is parked and he exits into the loving arms of his four boisterous children. So much is said while saying so little. Cuaron is able to keep the audience in the palm of his hand with his deft camerawork while also communicating through symbolism that this family patriarch--isolated behind the wheel of a virtual tank in a suffocatingly small garage--is emotionally withdrawn and would rather be anywhere else. 

Are you serious, Eugene? Did we really just sit here and read you telling us about how exciting it is to watch a man park his car in the garage? Yes, you did. And not only was I on the edge of my seat, mouth agape in enraptured smile, but a cursory glance to my left and right confirmed that the rest of the audience was as well. Cuaron is so fully in command of his craft with Roma--without question the best film both of 2018 and his own distinguished career--than he's able to completely transfix an audience by transforming the mundane into the transcendent. From opening frame to closing credits, I was captive to the magic unfolding on the screen above me. Cuaron's most personal work to date is a semi-autobiographical tale of the love and nurturing he experienced at the hands of the domestic workers who helped raise him, and he claims that 90 per cent of what is captured onscreen (he also wrote the screenplay and served as director of photography) actually happened. His sumptuously photographed scenes of domestic bliss resonate all the more strongly when contrasted against the backdrop of political upheaval and turmoil that are taking place just outside the stately homes of the titular Roma, an affluent Mexico City neighborhood. And this domestic bliss is centered around the ever-present and absolutely unforgettable Cleo (first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio in a quietly heartbreaking performance), a character you will never forget. 

Cleo, an ethnically indigenous native from the southern state of Oaxaca, is the domestic help to an upper-middle-class Mexico City family. She wakes up the four children first thing in the morning, and puts them to bed at night. All day long, she cleans and run errands, while student protesters grow increasingly restless in the streets and police in riot gear loom ominously on the sidewalks. Airplanes buzz overhead in the distant sky while she and the children chase each other from room to room, the camera panning endlessly in a circle to capture every single detail of domestic order (or disorder--there are boisterous children present, and occasional fights break out). Narratively, this is about all that happens for roughly the first hour. In case you're wondering what could possibly be interesting about this in any way, I deign to remind you that you're in the presence of one of the finest directors working today. Gorgeously photographed in rich black and white, Cuaron frames the action in wide panoramas usually reserved for epic period pieces, only to linger on the everyday mundanity of a home so well-lived-in it will remind you of the one you yourself grew up in. 

And the way that camera moves--man oh man. If you've seen Cuaron's 2006 Children of Men, you'll remember how he spins the camera dizzyingly in a circle as attackers pour out of the woods to attack a trapped car, or that epic steady cam tracking shot during the final action set piece. He uses this same bag of tricks in Roma, yet ultimately turns it on its head to deliver a completely unexpected emotional payoff: in capturing otherwise unremarkable scenes of everyday home life so dazzlingly, you feel like you're part of this family when the action eventually ramps up. 

It's you that feels utterly trapped and terrified upstairs in a furniture store while police open fire on protesters in the streets below. It's you that feels the flames on your face as you ferry buckets of water to douse the New Year's Eve fire at the hacienda. It's you that feels like you're drowning when Cleo wades into the ocean during the penultimate family vacation. And ultimately, it's you that will walk away knowing you've experienced true cinematic bliss singularly unlike anything else you've ever seen. Stop what you're doing right now, and go watch the trailer with the volume as loud as you can. See if you don't choke up at least a little at the beauty of what unfolds. And then, for the love of God, watch this film the first chance you get and thank me later. 

--Eugene Kelly