Much hay has been made over Roma and its status as a Netflix original that has gotten a wider than usual release from the company, but still one clinging stubbornly to a set of restrictions by the company. There are certainly important implications likely hidden in there in the future of the company (which is becoming increasingly prominent in the mid-tier award industry), but lost in that discussion, is Roma as a film itself. I’ve largely made a point to avoid talk of the Oscars here and we have a place for that, but what shouldn’t be ignored is that we have a serious Oscar contender outside of the Best Foreign Language Film in a language largely other than English. It’s not unheard of with 2012’s Amour (in French) being the last Best Picture nominee and 2007’s La Vie en Rose (also in French) the last to win in any category (Best Actress), but it is rare and speaks both to how special a film is, and also how special the filmmaker behind it is.
Roma‘s stature is certainly increased by nature of it’s director Alfonso Cuarón. Cuarón was one of the three prominent Mexican directors to break out in the 2000s (along with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu) starting with his fourth film from 2001, Y Tu Mamá También. He transitioned to English language films with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before delivering a pair of masterpieces Children of Men and Gravity. The latter remains one of my greatest theater experiences and its success obviously afforded him the chance for a riskier, more personal project. That would be a semi-autobiographical film in black and white in Spanish and Mixtec (with any other language left unsubtitled).
While the title is in reference to the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, it also in many ways, unintentional or not, points to the more famous one and the genre this film most resembles, the Italian neorealist film. In a post-Mussolini Italy, they heavily used non-professional actors and stories set on the streets of the cities, focusing on the hardships of the day. Like those films, Roma focuses on first time actor Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, one of two housekeepers for a family of seven including a doctor father, his wife, her mother, and their four children. She’s responsible for cleaning up and taking care of the kids who she dotes on and cares about.
Her world is changed however when, in accordance with movie law, she becomes pregnant by her first sexual partner who does not stick around. Meanwhile, the relationship of her employers deteriorates in the background with the husband, a doc frequently heading away on trips. It’s a wise move to keep their story largely in the background as the film succeeds by almost never really leaving her perspective and never taking the focus off of Cleo. Also in the background of this 1970-1971 set story is a slowly building political story that Cuarón ably makes feel essential even as it largely avoids intersecting with the plot.
The plot itself is largely episodic, favoring plenty of small, compelling moments. The movie just loves filling the screen with interesting events, both tying into the two main background subplots and completely unrelated that make the world feel so much larger than the personal story (which is not as dissimilar from his last two films when you think about it). Cuarón serves as director, producer, writer, cinematographer, and co-editor and he handles each one ably. His shooting style favors the kind of steady camera movements that I love, and he keeps the camera moving nice and slow. It’s almost disconcerting in a couple scenes late when characters are forced to run, and the camera has to move at a pace most films would consider normal.
After three fantastical films, Roma is a sharp change of genre, but one that only continues to prove Cuarón range and his continued refinement of craft. It never once feels like his artistic touches are unnecessary artifices and the naturalist performances, most notably from Aparicio, fit perfectly. I can’t pretend that it made the same kind of impact on me as Children of Men or Gravity, but those are impossible expectations and it does succeed on an emotional level (as well as just about every other level).