Roma (2018) - Film Review
Upon describing the plot of Roma, one could picture how the film could presumably play out: A meek housemaid struggles with poverty, family, and class in a politically turbulent 1970s Mexico City. The story itself is ripe for the usual acutely, human portrayal of this story. Dramatic score, tight, in the moment cinematography—techniques to get you to feel everything these characters are going through. Roma takes this fairly simple, dramatic story, and pulls you back, far away from the intense emotions and makes you a participant of something much, much larger.
The film is loaded from front to back with motivated detail in the cinematography and sound design. The technical achievements are all the more surprising as the film was shot by Cuaron himself, who also wrote, directed, and edited. Roma is Cuaron’s first cinematographer credit since 1990, which is a shocking fact considering the incredible grace and restraint shown in the cinematography. Easily one of the most unique and beautiful films of the year. The camera holds us at such a distance and utilizing such long takes, creates wonderful tension and expectation. It turns the audience into a tourist of 1970s Mexico City. Reminding us that the outside world exists, and that the story we’re following is merely an atom amongst billions of others in the cosmos.
The almost overwhelming production design brings entire cities to life and surrounds you and the characters with this blanket of action and sound. This feeling of being enveloped by the world around you is more akin to VR than conventional film. You enter a scene and are immediately confronted by a world that’s overflowing with life, and the story you’re following is just a small slice of it.
In this way, Roma is unlike any other film of it’s kind. It’s truly more about the experience than almost any other film that’s come out this year. Clearly, this is an immensely effective technique, but it does come with it’s own shortcomings. The film’s dedication to (literally) pulling so far back and away from the characters sometimes makes you miss the feeling of the actual moment itself. In this way, Roma cuts you off from feeling these moments in the way a more conventional film would. This is a purely technical phenomenon because the performances themselves are exceptional across the board. Yalitza Aparicio’s understated performance is beautiful and even handed. The performances themselves are so important, because they could so easily break the illusion of this reality with theatric reactions and drama. But they don’t and in doing so, when the drama and emotions finally pay off, there’s an authenticity that is more devastating or hopeful than anything they could possibly portray.
This is essentially the greatest thing about Roma. It doesn’t try to tell you how to feel. It puts you in a place, and has you simply experience the scene as it happens. This goes from beautiful to shattering sadness, but regardless of what it is, it gives you the space to truly feel it. In this way, Roma is possibly the most human film of the year. One that relies on the audience’s emotional maturity and empathy to fully manifest it’s greatness. It shows you that these individual struggles aren’t merely fables we tell each other, with morals and meaning. It takes a dramatic, and somewhat expected story, removes the melodrama and choreographed theatrics, and says, “This is life. This is reality.”
First Impressions: 75
On its face, the film is rather slow because it’s telling such a wide reaching story, as well as the main story being (fairly or unfairly) typical. It takes a moment to really feel the scope of what’s happening, especially because we start small, mostly in a single home.
Lasting Impression: 85
The film blooms over time, and only becomes more interesting when the technical aspects and directorial intent is considered. Clearly, a film with plenty to chew on.
Technical Excellence: 95
One of the most incredible achievements in production design, in any non-fantasy/sci-fi film. The coordination it must have taken to pull off some of these scenes boggles the mind, and should garner awards.
The film is unassuming and doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. The chances that it takes, it delivers on. No loose threads.
Bret Hoy is the creator and co-editor of Monolith Medium, an award winning filmmaker, and writer.