It’s often taken as a given that a work of art represents something personal about its primary artist, even when it doesn’t, or the manner in which it does is far less obvious than you would expect. You know though, you know when what you’re seeing or hearing or feeling has been pulled from something deep within the artist, a part of their soul delicately extracted and spun into something tangible, whether through paint or material or sound or light. Oftentimes it can feel indulgent or distant, an object of importance only to the person who created it and no one else, but sometimes their personal self-discovery becomes our self-discovery; an act of artistic generosity where we and the artist unearth together. We may be separated by language or culture, by time or place, but it feels as if the work is there with you, holding your hand, looking as deeply and compassionately into you as you look into it.
This compassion is at the very heart of Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’, one of the most potent examples of a film as a personal statement that we’ve ever seen. He has found a way, miraculously so, of taking us back to the Mexico City of his childhood, not as a documentary but as a poem of memory, where sensations, textures, tableaus, faces, places, objects, senses take precedence over narrative. Watching ‘Roma’ is not like looking through a window, but like looking through the eyes of another, through Cuarón’s eyes, and seeing the world not as it was, not as it should be, but as his imagination tells us it was. Cuarón isn’t the first filmmaker to do this (one could argue that Barry Jenkins did this barely two years ago with ‘Moonlight’), but there is no other filmmaker like Alfonso Cuarón, and if his 2006 masterpiece ‘Children of Men’ hadn’t already established him as one of the finest directors of this century, ‘Roma’ assures him a place with the greats. It’s a work that stands beside the classics of Fellini, Pasolini, Kurosawa or Bergman. It’s a work of pure transcendence.
‘Roma’ is a chronicle of Mexico City in the early 1970s, as seen through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous Mexican housekeeper for a middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district. Cleo is an established member of the house and, to the children of the family, a second mother figure. Something unexpected throws Cleo’s life into chaos, occurring concurrently with significant disruptions in within the family, and social and political upheaval in Mexico itself, and as their lives spiral out of control, Cleo must become a raft on which the children and their mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) can hold on to.
It always feels trite to say that a film is "perfect", but there’s really no other way to describe ‘Roma’. This is one of those rare moments that comes along so infrequently (again, probably not since ‘Moonlight’) where all the elements of cinematic storytelling come together in perfect balance, where no one element drowns the other. There are moments in ‘Roma’ so sublime, so overwhelming in their gentleness, their simplicity, their generosity, that you are left breathless. Cuarón’s portrait of this city he loves so, this city of memory and things lost in time, is one of tremendous and unstoppable life, and where other weaker artists would have gone for the bombast, he revels in the small and mundane. A car parking in a tiny driveway becomes an event, making a bed or putting out washing is poetry, the streets and skies are filled with song. Everything feels tangible and familiar, yet magical and extraordinary. Cleo as conduit to our view into this memorial past acts as our anchor, an emotional beating heart. Her life isn’t a remarkable one, her existence of no consequence to the universe of the city around her, but in her simplicity and honesty, she becomes the heart of this universe, its foundation on which others find themselves resting and relying, often without even noticing her. It would have been easy for Cuarón to have turned this into a story of Cleo’s struggle as someone under-appreciated or mistreated, but instead he places her as the sun around which the planets of the family must rotate. The planets don’t consider the sun as they complete their celestial journeys, just as the family take for granted that Cleo will always be there, but the ties that bind them are real and rich, and as the serenity of the first acts of the film begin to shiver and quake from political and personal unrest, those ties become lifelines. There is so much love in this film, so much love. It shimmers in every frame, in every softly spoken word, in the sparkle on water or in a character’s eye.
And this leads to perhaps the greatest conundrum of Cuarón’s direction of ‘Roma’ - it’s as if he has found a way to harness and control nature itself. One had a sense of his masterful control in ‘Gravity’ (2013) and certainly in ‘Children of Men’, but the manner in which he conducts image and sound in this film is virtuosic. As writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor with Adam Gough, his command is almost complete, allowing ‘Roma’ to be exactly as he wants it to be. The camera rarely goes in close, rather sitting back and observing with a gentle sweep or pan, like a diorama filled with endless moving pieces. And every single shot of this film is perfect, from its framing to the balance of the black and white palette to every single object, person, animal, plant, cloud, ray of sunshine, moonbeam, gathering of dust, everything within the frame. I found myself giddy from the sheer virtuosity of the imagery, how something could be so gentle and bombastic all at once. The sound design is overwhelming, a master class in turning the sounds of life itself into a symphony. The visuals of ‘Roma’ are the obvious reason to see this film in a cinema, but it’s the sound that really demands to be heard as loud, as clear and as immersive as possible. As has always been the case with Cuarón, all the tricks of the form are in complete service to the characters and the story, there to support and elevate. His direction is loving, generous and gentle. The film breaks your heart when it needs to, pushes you to the edge when it needs to, and still possesses Cuarón’s wickedly cheeky sense of humour. That he can balance all the elements of ‘Roma’ all at once, each at the height of their powers and deserving of more praise than I can give here - that he can weave them together like this is miraculous.
There are moments in ‘Roma’ so sublime, so overwhelming in their gentleness, their simplicity, their generosity, that you are left breathless.
And at its heart is another miracle in the performance from Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo. It’s hard to even know how to put into words what it is that she does, mostly because you get the feeling that, like the character herself, Aparicio has no idea how breathtaking and beautiful she is. Her face shines with hope and love, with longing and pain, with a belief that life will find its way and the fear that it may not. Aparicio is at the very centre of the film, often at the centre of the frame, and even with the circus of the world around her, she commands the film utterly. She is an everywoman and the heart of Mexico itself, the burgeoning, bustling city and the ancient land beneath it. Cuarón surrounds her with the elements, with earth and water and fire, frames her against the impossible enormity of the sky. Yalitza Aparicio’s performance is a singular, seismic event, like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928), one where the humanity of the actor herself defines not just her character, but the film itself.
‘Roma’ is a transcendent work of cinema, one where no amount of words can come close to capturing the feelings you have while watching it. This is a work that could only have been cinema, from one of the few directors capable of creating works of cinema at its purest. ‘Roma’ is life itself, the delicacy of memory, the chaos of love, the movement of nature and history, human beings crashing against one other as the atoms of the universe crash around them. Alfonso Cuarón has not just delivered a personal ode to a city he loves, to a time and a place that haunts him, to a figure who defined him, but given us the chance to see the same within ourselves, a window into his soul that is a window into our own. Some of us will have the chance to see ‘Roma’ in a cinema, and some will only have the chance to see it on our televisions, but we are so lucky to be seeing a film like this at all. ‘Roma’ is another masterwork from one of the greatest filmmakers this medium has ever seen. In the centuries to come, as long as film is studied and adored, so will this film be. ‘Roma’ is the best films of the year, one of the best films ever made, a miracle of modern cinema and a masterpiece for the ages.