A year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Due to the weird backlog of reviews I’ve been pushing through, you may already know my thoughts about Roma, so I’ll lead with the headline here: this is my favorite movie of the year (at least, of the ones I managed to see). The obvious question you are probably wondering is why?
A simple answer is style. I was never the “best” film student, in the sense that arthouse, indie, avant-garde, and experimental films fell mostly outside my wheelhouse. Those films, in general, were some combination of too “out there”, too what-the-hell-is-going-on?, too slow. Layman’s terms: I never understood them, so I could never fully enjoy what I was watching. However, from a filmmaking perspective, there was something intriguing about them.
To me, Roma reminds me of a Francois Truffaut, French new wave film: black-and-white, following people around the city, not much going on. Roma is the semi-autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood in Mexico. The story nominally follows the housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and the goings-on in her life. But there is also a fair bit of story going on with the kids, the mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the father, and even the events of the day circa 1970s Mexico.
Sounds like a lot of story to pack in to one film, and it is, but a lot of the details are mundane. It is everyday tasks like Cleo sweeping up dog poop or a family going out to see a movie. Similar sentiment to what I remember from a Truffaut film, but Cuaron makes it interesting. We follow the quotidian family around the city, going about their lives, and it is interesting? Cleo is beset with a life-altering event which adds obvious drama and draws you in to the characters; something that’s not just a run-of-the-mill occurrence. Maybe I would have liked Truffaut’s films more if I were allowed to use subtitles to get a better grasp at actual plot points taking place.
But there’s more to Roma than just the presence/absence of a somehow intriguing story and group of characters. Perhaps most of all, Roma is, at least to my tastes, a beautifully made film; in many respects. The cinematography is gorgeous, with objects really popping out in the black-and-white. Black-and-white also helps develop the overall tone and feel to Roma as well. When I say beautiful though, I am talking more about the craft. Roma is a solid “classic” film. It feels like a product of the 70s, which funnily enough is when the French new wave started influencing Hollywood and American films and an era of film I look back on fondly.
If I had the words to eloquently explain why films of the 70s and what Cuaron accomplished with Roma appeal to me so much, I should have pursued film criticism and aim to be the next Roger Ebert. Alas, I have to settle for the words my monkey brain produces. But to take a stab at it, Roma is an example of quintessential cinema because it relies on the fundamentals. “Anyone” can make an entertaining film nowadays, just add some big-name talent, a bunch of explosions, a few twists-and-turns, and bingo, you have the beginnings of what should be an okay film. But it’s like a chef relying on the salt or a baker relying on sugar. Of course the food is going to taste good if you put the easy things in. The trick is to make the food taste good using the essence of the other ingredients.
Curaon, who wrote, directed, shot, and co-edited the film, nails the technical parts of the film which helps the, rather simple, story shine. It is an absolute joy to watch Roma and be sucked in, not knowing why a story about a family, their maid, and events of their daily lives, is having this effect. My personal explanation is that Roma has the je ne sais quois of other 70s films out of Hollywood and even the French films of the 60s that I never had a fondness for.
I’ll certainly be interested to read what the professional critics said and why others like this film. My hope is that Roma will nab a couple Academy Awards come Sunday, but time will tell.
5 out of 5