‘Roma’ review: Life’s Like That

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

LICH rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)  (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

Here it is then. The best movie of 2018 and possibly one of the finest to be crafted. Director Alfonso Cuarón—also writing the script, basing it on all the women from his childhood—makes poetry onscreen, using rhymes, meters, verses, and scenery from life in Roma (a district in Mexico city).

Forced to eschew his regular cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki because of a bloated schedule, Cuarón took on the mantle himself, and what he does behind the lens stuns as much as what he achieves in front of it. Roma is an exquisitely detailed peep into the past; one that neither judges nor takes sides. It’s the director’s time machine that magically melts into Mexico city, transporting you into the home of Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), their four children, Sofia’s mother Teresa (Verónica García), and two maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy García).

Yalitza Aparicio and Marco Graf in Roma.

It is Cleo’s story that is Roma and vice-versa that has Yalitza Aparicio in a performance that’ll haunt you for a long, long time to come. The opening shot is a doorway into the brilliant visuals that the director has in store—the credits superimposed on a still shot of tiles, giving you all the time in the world to realize what the director is setting out to do; here, the tiles are all in different hues, some grimier than the others. And that right there is a telling beauty: much like a cue of societies where the mosaic is what makes them, and yet some are more privileged than others, and these others form the class that keeps the societal flooring even, while they—not out of choice for sure—are beyond the reach of benefits of the financial bleach that could have made their lives shinier.

Yalitza Aparicio is superb in Roma.

As Cleo’s life slowly comes into focus, the director also keeps the stories around her in orbits of randomness that’s unrelenting; he doesn’t give us the luxury of parallel tracks of scenes for us to catch up; the camera and the script (purportedly the most detailed that Cuarón’s written, including descriptions of the surrounding sound effects) throw snatches of what’s happening in Cleo’s surroundings. Much like life, where all of us are consumed by our drama, romances, tragedies, and challenges, even as those around us have their equally immersive life stories, but for whom ours is but a blur of passers-by glimpse.

Family time can be a mixed bag.

As the movie progresses, Cleo becomes important to us, we care for her, we want only the best for her. But life may have other plans for her, the beginning of which is her getting into bed with her boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). This is a brilliant scene, not because Fermín’s completely naked and trying to calm his nerves with martial arts using a shower curtain rod. (“I discovered martial arts. And everything came into focus. Just like when you look at me.”) It’s in Cleo’s face that we see her humanness—she’s amused, nervous, and fascinated. Cuarón keeps his eye on her all the time, but also shows us what she’s seeing and feeling. And he does this using such breath-taking shots that it’s hard not to be subsumed by his art. Take for instance his introduction of the living room as Cleo turns off the lights before retiring for the night—the camera follows her, doing a 360 degree view from where it’s perched, noting her, drinking in the furniture, the bookshelves, giving every piece a character that adds to the atmosphere. (The furniture pieces are important because the director sourced them from his relatives for the movie to give visual heft to his story that’s “ninety percent childhood memories”. )

Yalitza Aparicio and Verónica García: trouble ahead.

There’s nothing here that’s forced, the camera a watchful, sharp observer of goings on—note the detailing of the breakfast table in the good, absent doctor’s home—bread crumbs scattered as they would in the madness of the routine prep of life. Or later, at a new year’s party (which is when you realize the exact year the movie’s based in), the smorgasbord of mess that is a drinks side-table: whiskey bottles, tumblers, and amidst all that is adultish and complicated, an introduction to this life—a feeding bottle. There are other societal, familial and life’s references: a Ford Galaxy that’s driven by the husband and parked in a narrow driveway inside the house that’s “always covered in s**t”, his parking manoeuvrings a meticulous tight rope of the institution that is marriage; and later, when Sofia drives the same car inside, it’s her rage against that very institution that is damaged and also damages.  

In a pulse-pounding scene outside a furniture shop, students riot and kill and are killed (referencing the infamous Corpus Christi massacre), while inside, two characters have come shopping for a crib. I couldn’t help but think, Is this the kind of world we want children to come into? And that was the 70s! What of the vitiated, vituperative now? That scene is also when we see a matriarch come into her own, keeping her prayer beads in constant motion, holding on to her crumbling strength, but breaking down only later, when she gets to life’s red-tape drudgery of filling forms.

Director Cuarón uses black and white photography not to get nostalgic or into a vintage mood and mode—his cue seems as though to tell us that nothing may actually be black or white in life, but to each one of us living it, it always is. And yet in this seemingly limited color palette he magically gets the glow of a forest fire in the sky; he uses lighting to show us visions that we’d never seen in color. He uses stunning sound recording and design (Sergio Diaz, sound designer, José Antonio García, sound, Enrique Greiner, sound editor, and team surely looking at some technical awards, though you know that isn’t the point) to add to the immersion; a forest fire roars as do the waves in a climactic, mouth-going-dry-eyes-moist scene; everyday sounds chirp, the sounds and songs from afar the only point of reference for a background score.

Roma is a not-to-be-missed achievement, delicately using special effects to add to its magical canvas of life’s goings-on. It’s heart-breaking, it’s caring, and it’s beautifully uplifting. The movie juxtaposes life’s circles, each circle in its own momentary phase of experiences—like when a heartbroken group finds solace in ice-cream cones even while a raucous crowd next to it breaks into celebration. And we need a genre-defying magician like Cuarón to show us that while we carry on with our drama-filled lives,  that aeroplane flying above doesn’t care. It carries on per its schedule, regardless. Because life, on and at every plane, is like that.

LICH ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Roma (2018) on IMDb

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Roma is rated A (Restricted to adults) There’s frontal nudity, intense sequences.

Director Alfonso Cuarón  Running Time 2h 15min
Writer Alfonso Cuarón
Stars Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy García
Genres  Drama

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