A devine vision, both inspiring and disquieting.
Films, by their very nature, are a team effort. There are a colossal number of moving parts in the eventual product the crew will hope to call a motion picture, but every so often a piece comes along directed so purely through the soul of its captain; an almost vicarious, magical tour through lost and firm memories, an illustration of events that can only be comprehended through the beauty of the moving image. Roma, the latest Netflix release (although it’s seeing a very limited theatrical run), is directed, written, photographed and co-edited by one man; contemporary master, Alfonso Cuarón, and is said to be a semi-autobiographical story based on his upbringing in Mexico. The result is an auteurist masterclass, a capture of dreams and harsh reality.
Presented in crystalline black-and-white, the film opens with tiling awash with soapy water, progressing into a long, unbroken shot which reveals our protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio), cleaning the driveway of a home. You’d be fair for suggesting that Roma is one for finite plotting; it is simply an examination of living in the political unrest of 1970s Mexico, with the magnifying glass hanging over Cleo and the family which she caters for as the subjects.
Aparicio has never had a single acting job prior to this. Not one. Her work here is beautifully and remarkably developed, a gentle guide through a turbulent life inflicted with little and large hardships, but also rife with small joys. As such she has an astonishing handle on the nuance of the performance, emoting weighty range through her eyes most of all, from contentment, to confusion, to agony, without signs of struggle. In the race for Best Actress in the New Year, there’s only one contender that really deserves the gong as much as Toni Collette, and her name is Yalitza.
It’s a similar circumstance for the majority of the cast; in Cuarón’s efforts to stay as realistic as possible, he cherrypicked an unknown ensemble in order to allow the picture to carry the power. Successful he is though, it is an utterly persuasive portrait. There’s all the trademarks of rambunctious family life; kids pestering their mum to go in the water at the beach, teasing each other about relationships, spats over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. In this sense, it’s the most vivid exploration of the wonders of the everyday since Boyhood. But there’s more of a social commentary at play here; in one disturbingly subtle juxtaposition, young boys unflinchingly recall a brutal street execution, and in the next shots, they’re outside playing with toy guns. We are shaped by the experiences of our youth, and Roma is a testament to that through Cuarón.
The script is comparably organic, straying away from undesirable dramatic extravagance, acting more as the functional vehicle that language is legitimately used for. Not that the screenplay is deprived, there’s an abundance of tenderness and trauma in some of the film’s most affecting scenes. One line among the many wonderful utterances (to share more would be a fat spoiler) is shared between Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira); the latter being rather intoxicated, holds the former, saying “Women are always alone”.
Cuarón is a master of his craft who holds an almost unparalleled ability to transport the viewer into whatever world he’s working in. It’s why Prisoner of Azkaban is (quite easily) the best Harry Potter film. It’s why Children of Men is an atmospheric triumph in the dystopia genre. It’s why Gravity holds the capability to induce a vacuum of anxiety with unmatched immersion in the abyss of darkness. Roma places you beside the camera as if you’re watching a documentary; he frames sequences so naturally and akin to that of real life, to describe his direction as refined is now a gross injustice. There’s a scene in a shop that transcends into a riot, that’s so candidly and scarily provoked, you’ll feel present.
You can feel his eye soaking through the lens, creating some completely devastating shots in their level of intricate beauty. There are simply too many to list; a held-viewpoint in a cinema screening is sublimely framed, a wide countryside view is unbelievable in painting-like clarity. Every frame is display of total prowess, not a single millimetre of the screen wasted, the tiniest details often the most memorable (look out for the cannonball man). Of course, you can expect the classic one-takes from the director, but while Gravity was more of an overt showcase, Roma is the culmination of his trained talents, creating both a magnificent feat of filmmaking on both a technical and emotional level.
Perfection. Cinema doesn’t get as rich as this.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm