A Look Back on Roma
Written by Sophia Anderson
What makes life beautiful?
Director Alfonso Cuarón ponders this in his most recent film, Roma. He opens with an unassuming bird’s-eye view of a floor being cleaned, soapy water ebbing and flowing. The shot is meditative and slow. When we finally tilt up, right around the three minute mark, we see our main character, Cleo. In one fell swoop, Cuarón has already set the tone for the entire film to unfold. Now, we sit back and relax.
In similarly slow-paced shots, we meet Cleo. She is a young domestic worker in 1970’s Mexico, cleaning up after a large family and helping to care for the children. She has a unique role as a sort of part of the family, yet she earns less respect than the family dog. The family watches TV, all sitting together on the furniture, as Cleo cleans up behind them and then finally comes to sit on the floor. The camera almost exclusively follows her as she candidly moves about in the center of the frame. Cuarón’s careful framing creates an immediate, tangible intimacy between Cleo and the viewer. Despite having no previous acting experience, actress Yalitza Aparicio embodies the role. The choice of Aparicio was no accident, either—Cuarón extensively searched Mexico for the right woman for the role until he found her, a 24 year old school teacher at the time. Cuarón’s dedication to authenticity comes across in every aspect of the film, and we as viewers can’t help but be completely immersed in the world he creates.
Beyond its immersive qualities, Roma is set apart from the flashy, formulaic movies that Hollywood has been churning out at higher and higher rates. It is decidedly slower, quieter. Not to mention that Cuarón shot the entirety of the film in what he calls a “contemporary black and white”—a conscious decision to create a sense of memory without making the audience feel disconnected, as they might if he shot with a more “vintage black and white”. Cuarón took his time, extending the shooting schedule so far past the initial plan that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubetzki dropped out of production. The film’s cinematography then fell into Cuarón’s lap, and he decided to shoot wide on 65 mm film, a departure from the Academy format. This choice is subtly visible to viewers and illustrates the careful artistry of Cuarón’s directorial hand. While many viewers may not consciously realize how these choices shape the film, they are unavoidably a part of the watching experience and serve as the perfect canvas for the film’s themes to be expressed upon.
In the spirit of breaking conventions, Roma did not have the traditional 90-day theatrical release window before hitting the streaming world. Less than a month after its theatrical release, Roma was available for streaming on Netflix. This amplified the accessibility of the film while still allowing it to meet Academy nomination requirements. Though it should be said, those who were able to see Roma in theaters were subject to a completely different experience than those who streamed it on their laptops. It’s the kind of film you want to see on the big screen. With its understated soundtrack of the bustling everyday life in Mexico City, Cuarón’s attention to detail, and its stunning cinematography, it’s hard not to leave the theater in a state of shock. Every single frame is eye candy—but even that description takes away from its simple elegance and honesty. And beyond the beauty of its visuals, Roma delivers some of the most poignant thematic truths that you’ve got to see for yourself.
Cuarón has outdone himself with this one. So turn off the lights, get in front of the biggest screen you have, and soak in all it has to offer.