One of the most powerful aspects of film as a medium is its ability to bring us closer to — and thus allow us to empathize with — characters that are so far removed from our own individual life experiences. And these moments of empathy can be built across cultures, across languages, and across societal structures. Regardless of whether we’re dealing with an overtly fantastical journey set in some far-off land, a science fiction romp set in the distant future, or a grounded human drama with gritty and realistic characters, a film is successful if it manages to build that connection between the audience and the characters.
Five years ago, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón delivered a massive hit in the form of Gravity, a film that managed to combine elements of larger-than-life disaster films (as it depicts a story of an astronaut fighting for her life after the destruction of her space shuttle) and small-scale human dramas (by focusing its narrative on the backstory of said astronaut, delivered through breathless soliloquies in the cold vastness of space). Whatever quibbles one may have with the story and the way it unfolds, Gravity is a thrill ride of a film, employing cinematic elements masterfully to plunge viewers head-first into the rapidly dismantling chaos of its disaster-film sequences, while also connecting with our protagonist on a more grounded and human level. It won Cuarón the Academy Award for Best Director.
Yesterday, Cuarón released his follow-up Roma into the world. After premiering in the festival stage, the film’s distribution rights were acquired by Netflix, though it is also being screened in select theaters across Buenos Aires (if you want to see it on the big screen, MALBA and BAMA are the places to go). And while technology has allowed many of us to own television sets that are capable of producing a better image than a lot of movie theater projectors, I would definitely recommend watching this on the big screen. It’s not just because of the scope of it– a film like Roma really benefits from being completely engaged as an audience member, having one’s attention placed entirely on its images, sounds, and words, without the distractions of watching this at home.
Roma is far from a rollicking outer-space thrill ride, nor does it share many story aspects with Cuarón’s previous work (such as the nightmarish dystopia of Children of Men, or the coming-of-age antics of Y Tu Mamá También). Instead, Cuarón delivers a comparably very small, but also very personal story that touches on big topics; and through its use of imagery, rhythm, and storytelling devices, the film is able to pack the emotional resonance of a grand operatic epic.
The film follows Cleo, a live-in maid for an upper-middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. Like a lot of live-in maids in Latin American societies, Cleo isn’t regarded as simply “the help”, but is considered part of the family. She develops a deep emotional connection with the people that she’s looking after (husband and wife Sofía and Antonio, as well as their four children), and she in turn is loved and appreciated by them.
However, Cuarón is clever enough to add another layer of nuance to the relationship, as Cleo is reminded in small but significant ways that there is a dividing line separating her from the family, such as being gently admonished not to leave the light on for too long at night (to avoid spending more money on electricity). The subtle shades of grey in the relationship between Cleo and her employers are what a lot of the movie hinges on, and is what Cuarón is attempting to shine a light on in this partly autobiographical film (which he refers to as a tribute to the women who raised him).
Cleo becomes pregnant, and when the father wants nothing to do with the baby, she leans on the support of the family she works for. One of Roma’s key strengths is the way it relates the story to us: through indirect storytelling cues (such as half-whispered conversations heard from across the room), key plot points are revealed to the audience, such as the fact that the relationship between the Sofía and Antonio is strained, and eventually dissolves. These shifting family tensions are felt throughout the film, as is the political tempestuousness of early 1970s Mexico, which collide (both directly and indirectly) with our characters’ stories.
Roma is a beautiful movie, both literally and figuratively (Cuarón works as his own director of photography, creating images that are often stunning in their construction and dramatic significance). It works in its own rhythms, which it is careful enough to acclimate its audience to. It may feel slow and ponderous if you’re watching it with a sense of impatience, or if you’re laying at home being distracted every two minutes while you watch.
But turn your phone off. Close the door. Set the cat aside. Give this movie your undivided attention. Settle into its peaks and valleys, starting with that gorgeous opening shot. Let it take you where it will, and let Cuarón guide your emotions through a different kind of thrill ride. This time, you’re not barreling through space with Sandra Bullock, but letting yourself feel the full emotional resonance of a smaller, quieter, more modest– yet no less impactful — cinematic journey.