Roma begins with the running of water down a drain, title credits written above the deluge as bubbles begin slowly forming, a gradual cleansing as we see cast and crew names drift by. Soon the camera pans up and we see it’s the sweeping of filth from a carpark, a quotidian task performed by the live-in help of a middle class Mexican family. And thus Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and perhaps greatest film begins, not coincidentally, with shit going down the drain, swept away by the effort of those too often forgotten about.
This semi-autobiographical story of a family and their help is a bravura work of cinema, equally impressive on both narrative and technical levels. Cuarón ups the auteur ante, credited as a writer, producer, editor, cinematographer and director on the film, putting his thumbprint on every frame.
And yet the film’s focus on the young maid Cleo (played in rapturously exquisite fashion by Yalitza Aparicio) and her quiet dignity and power of character is what makes it all the more extraordinary, a far cry from the normal, somewhat narcissistic memories of youth. Cuarón sets adult eyes on what during his childhood he surely took for granted, firmly focussing the narrative on the type of individual usually relegated to the background, if visible at all.
The film’s narrative follows the disintegration of the family unit while Cleo and her co-worker continue to hold things together, occupying that netherworld between trusted and caring member of the family and employee. It’s this divide that plays out in touching, subtle ways, from gentle moments joining to watch a comedy program on television to being on a family trip, never quite a part and never quite apart either.
As the story unfolds there are numerous confrontations that occur and obstacles to be overcome, each feeling perfectly attuned with the tone of the piece. This delicate touch, deeply reminiscent of Fellini’s greatest works, makes the title of Roma even more in keeping with the Neorealist films that heavily influence it. Yet this is no mere empty homage, and it’s clear that Cuarón draws from not only his own country’s vast cinema heritage but finds way to tell old stories in new ways.
The film is littered with examples of how he can take the extraordinary technical skills he utilized on Gravity or Children of Men and combine these elements with the superbly realized character moments in the likes of Y Tu Mama Tambien. There’s a sequence set at the beach which is breathtaking, a non-showy shot that nonetheless boggles the mind with its precision of execution. A similar, seemingly simple static shot in a hospital room is anything but, with foreground and background action simultaneously occupying attention, creating a moment of both movement and stillness at the same time.
Cuarón has long championed exceptional sound design, and here he also uses some of his Hollywood techniques to tell his more intimate tale. Thanks to object-oriented sounds from the Atmos mix, where dialoge floats to the sides, back or even ceiling to convey space, the director leads viewers to focus on various things in a cluttered frame. It’s a beautifully pure bit of cinematic trickery, and one that’s obviously best experienced on the largest screen possible with the best sound setup as well to fully apprehend both these vital aspects of the film.
Even absent these aspects the film is still a magnificent achievement; its tiny moments of pathos or ennui cause enough to help make this one of the most wrenching and effective works of Cuarón’s career. As audiences we come to feel a part of this dysfunctional family, finding ourselves deeply connected with Cloe and moved by her sacrifice and compassion. This is a film that like few others speaks to Roger Ebert’s notion of cinema as an empathy machine. We’re so fully drawn into the lives of these characters not only due to the flurry of narrative elements but through the precisely executed technical aspects as well. Roma is a film to be cherished, one of the great works of the age that demonstrates that movies truly can live with and respect the classics of the past while contributing immensely to the works of the present.
Ignoring all these metatextual considerations, it’s safe to say that Roma represents a certain kind of cinematic peak, where on both production and story grounds we’re treated to something that nears perfection the way that only the truly great works do. Hyperbole comes easy with a work such as this, a film that reminds of the unequivocal joys of watching movies, of being led into a world unfamiliar yet being left in the end of a profound connection with those you have virtually journeyed along with.