Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.
Release Date: December 14th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alfonso Cuaron Actors: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Veronica Garcia, Andy Cortes, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
t several points throughout “Roma,” images appear onscreen for numerous minutes, letting audiences ponder their meaning – or even what exactly they are. Naturalistic sounds play out in the background and voices can be heard as the camera’s focus slowly becomes apparent. It’s almost as if writer/director Alfonso Cuaron wants viewers to guess what they’re looking at. In many scenes, the lens is fixated not on the characters, but on the supplementary elements, such as scenery, props, and environments. Particularly at the start, it seems as if “Roma” will be overflowing with symbolism and visual metaphors.
In Mexico in the early ‘70s, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) are maids for Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira). Their chores make up the majority of the opening act, as they scrub floors, prepare food, wash laundry, corral the family mutt Borras, and help with their employers’ four young children. The gentle movements of the camera across the sizable household generates a soothing artistry for the mundanity of manual labor, while little hints of humor brighten additional commonplace actions – such as parking a wide car in a tight garage, or failing to avoid stepping in dog droppings.
After a considerable time, it becomes clearer that Cuaron is conducting an experiment with “Roma,” attempting to redefine how cinema can be used to tell a story. The subjects are incredibly un-cinematic, as his camera documents – in a somewhat documentarian style (there’s no music to augment the activities, and no flashy editing) – the lives and lifestyles of painfully average people. Rather than giving audiences a story with ups and downs, with adventure and tragedy, with glee and sorrow, he merely displays – with painstaking attention to details – the utmost examples of ordinariness. Even when Cleo goes on a date, or contends with relationship turmoil, or overhears of Sofia’s familial complications, there’s a striking lack of sensationalism. Regular life, as it turns out, is hardly the stuff of movies.
The monotonous repetition of daily routines composes the bulk of “Roma,” chronicling with unforgivable length all manner of the expected – of patience-testing normalcy. Yet despite the unorthodox embrace of nonevents and borderline boring averageness, Cuaron’s greatest misstep is with the picture’s lone sequence of thrills, involving student protests. Here, even as he stages some exciting perspectives of disorder and violence, he incorporates extreme coincidences, which break up the feeling of a spontaneous, unmanipulated biography. In the film’s most action-packed moment, “Roma” actually resembles a traditional movie. It’s unlikely this is an accident, as Cuaron’s direction seems far too meticulously planned out to not have intended every minute of screentime, but it definitely works against the previous adherence to marked realism.
The acting, however, is superb, but only because the characters rarely feel like characters; the stars don’t appear like actors, but rather as everyday people whose lives just happened to be recorded. As such, the premise never strives to highlight the pitiable qualities of this specific time and place; life itself provides joy and distress continuously, sometimes in larger or smaller doses, and without a discernible syncopation. “Roma’s” most powerful sequence, which arrives nearly two hours in, also falls into this design; it’s only as upsetting or tragic or allaying as any of life’s great mysteries. The entirety of the film is, in essence, just a sliver of Cleo’s tale; a piece of her history, or her movement through history, which isn’t particularly monumental or transformative or defining. It’s as if Cuaron aims to convey that any random period in an individual’s life can be either usual or unusual, but undoubtedly not the heavily embellished fiction most often witnessed in customary moviemaking. This, of course, infrequently translates into entertainment.
– Mike Massie