Cinematic Memories: Alfonso Cuaron's Netlfix-Distributed Roma Review

Alfonso Cuaron attends  'Roma' Paris Premiere at Cinema Max Linder on December 12, 2018 in Paris, France.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix-distributed Roma is achingly personal; so many have and will continue to appreciate the Mexican filmmaker’s evocation of 1970’s Mexico City, but as with all personal films, alienation is also a strong possibility.

The narrative centres on the maid of a middle-class family over the course of one year. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) has become an integral part of the unit, and with the sudden absence of the family patriarch, she feels even more essential. After falling pregnant, the promise of beginning her own family becomes more of a reality, but as Cuaron communicates, reality is rarely ideal. Through the story, themes of abandonment, belonging and survival are expertly explored, but the film’s heart is undoubtedly with Aparicio. Her performance is one of indescribable beauty; her face - angelic and pure - is one that lights up her surroundings. Such a performance is invaluable to a piece like Roma, because the piece itself really is uncompromisingly personal.

A fitting comparison can be made between this and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror; the legendary Soviet filmmaker’s 1975 semi-autobiographical masterpiece, which blends personal details with that of wider Russian history. The similarities do not end with an emphasis on personal and contextual details, as there are also stylistic links. The opening shot of the film shows a tiled floor, and with the introduction of water the floor becomes limitless, showing us the sky above and the sight of a distant aeroplane promising not just escape, but somewhere beyond. This spectacular shot feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky, and sets a fitting mood for the meditative work ahead. Certain sequences also feel reminiscent of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, and the camerawork during the distressing furniture-store sequence feels inspired by the hospital sequence in Werckmeister Harmonies. Despite an impressive range of impeccable homage and influence, the film is too personal to be the work of anyone else. 

(L-R) Scott Stuber, Gabriela Rodriguez, Alfonso Cuaron, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Nico Celis attend the Netflix 'Roma' Premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on December 10, 2018 in...(L-R) Scott Stuber, Gabriela Rodriguez, Alfonso Cuaron, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Nico Celis attend the Netflix 'Roma' Premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on December 10, 2018 in...

The visuals are astonishing, with every single frame contributing to Cuaron’s clear labour of love. There’s sometimes a surreal quality to the images which is very interesting; one shot which shows family members trying to put out a fire sees a man dressed as a monster navigating the panic, and another peculiar example shows the family sitting in-front of a gigantic ant statue. The imagery outlined here is striking and provides a slight sense of otherworldliness to a film that has its subject matter grounded in reality. The structure of the piece lends the impression of memories being projected onto celluloid, and although the truth, pain and beauty of the memories do not change, they transcend the domestic and become something cinematic.

At times there are sequences which are emotionally overwhelming, and it’s likely that audiences will find themselves gripped by Cleo’s experiences and the inequalities she faces. However, these moments all enforce a central message, which can only be Cuaron’s awe at the strength of woman. This is a message he communicates well with the aid of some brilliant performances; yet, there will be some who feel that it’s not enough. Admittedly, despite all the praise bestowed on the film, there is definitely something amiss. Perhaps the sense that something’s missing is intrinsic to the film, after all, the character’s are also missing something crucial; a husband, a father, a partner. Perhaps it’s the absence of these important figures that makes us feel the film is lacking something. Even if this is to be the case, it will still affect enjoyment, and this feeling of mysterious unfulfillment prevents you from ever truly losing yourself in what Cuaron has to say.

Some audiences will appreciate the pacing of the film, and others will no doubt attack it for being slow. Equally, some will be able to connect to this very personal film, and others won’t, despite acknowledging that it’s beautifully made; this however, will be obvious to everyone.

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