The opening credits of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma unfold over an extended shot staring firmly down at a tiled patio floor. We hear the sounds of the morning- dogs barking, birds chirping, tile being scrubbed. After about a minute, a tide of soapy water reaches our tight field of vision, revealing in its foamy reflection the bright sky of day. The credits continue for several minutes more over this new canvas, as a commercial jetliner swims across its narrow mirror of suds and a surge of water lazily crashes over our tiny rectangle of reference, temporarily obscuring the heavens. Only after the film’s title card has finally revealed itself- after nearly five minutes of this framed visual finessing- does the camera pan up to unveil our protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), cleaning the outdoor alleyway of an upper middle-class Mexican home. This restrained, strikingly cinematic opening serves as an overture of sorts for the film, establishing the imprisoned initial state of its focal character entirely through the constrained imagery it proposes.
Cleo is one of two maids for a handsome Mexican family of seven, working tirelessly all day to ensure that food is prepared, the house is clean, and the children are well-behaved. Cuarón allots his audience a substantial amount of time to properly immerse us in Cleo’s world, introducing us to her unique orbit within the family along with the visually exciting bustle of 1970s Mexico City. The film conveys much of this extended prologue with equal amounts of objectivity and intimacy, employing a near constant stream of subliminal tracking shots through the family’s respectable villa and across the busy city streets. This patient camerawork instills a dreamlike haze over the film, despite its insistence on cinematic realism. It’s a somewhat bewildering yet distinctively satisfying experience to watch the film subtly extract subjectivity from the photographic.
This should prove no surprise for Cuarón veterans, as the Mexican auteur has long found impressively cinematic ways to inject a personal viscerality into his audacious setpieces. Whether by way of the extended, anxiety-laden tracking shots through a dystopian refugee camp in Children of Men or the terrifying hostility of space in Gravity, Cuarón has a unique talent for painting individual characters onto a wide canvas and allowing his audience to contextualize them within such expansive landscapes on their own. Roma represents the apotheosis of Cuarón’s visual talent, employing an ambitious number of long takes and pans over both exterior and interior scenery alike. While the film may be short on the conspicuously flashy theatrics of Children of Men, Cuarón’s more polished, restrained style amounts to an overall far more cinematically interesting excursion. An early scene illustrating this point transpires in a grand movie palace, depicting a pivotal plot point between two characters within a single, unwavering static shot amongst hundreds of extras. Watching the scene unfold in a movie theater yourself is near-hallucinatory.
Experiencing Roma in a brick-and-mortar theater also has the additional advantage of living through its aurally arresting sound design. Through an overwhelmingly immersive sound mixing, Cuarón achieves a degree of emotional investment within his narrative not possible with the film’s admittedly distant visuals alone. In Roma, the sound is just as crucial, if not more decisive, to the overall impression the film imparts. While the cinematography never escapes the feeling of existing in a mostly observatory state, the sound mixing prevents us from ever leaving Cleo’s side, conveying to the best of its ability the sounds she hears, at the subjective volume and location in which she perceives them. In a theater setting, the noisy conversations of a busy cafe sound like inconsiderate moviegoers behind or even right next to you. By the time a particular noise overtakes the soundtrack, it has become subconsciously clear that this sound is accordingly flooding Cleo’s senses. This effect is featured several times throughout Roma, but never as prominently as a strangely emotional sequence of catharsis that occurs late in the film on a beach.
To a certain extent, Cuarón’s visionary realization of style leaves few opportunities for Cleo’s story to ever truly take the reins of Roma, but the compromise the film arrives at between aesthetics and narrative feels right for the terms it has defined. There’s a muted, lifelike sense of uneventfulness for most of the runtime- days blend into weeks into months, with little distinction. Yet there are certain sequences, such as a violent student demonstration and a panicked hospital visit, where Cleo’s story meets and blends with the style so indistinguishably that we aren’t quite sure where one ends and the other begins. Such instances are undoubtedly memorable highlights of Roma, but they are much less melodramatic climaxes in the film than momentary periods of volatility, unbearable yet ultimately brief outbursts of horror that are softened by the passage of time, just like real life.
I didn’t fully comprehend how intricately I had been ensnared within Roma’s web until the final shot had been projected, which ends the film by mirroring its first shot. All the emotions I had inexplicably suppressed- even during the aforementioned scenes of distress- finally came rushing forward when the final “Roma” card appeared. Cleo’s external situation may have traveled very little distance within two hours and fifteen minutes- she is still the same maid working for the same family- but the audience’s realization of her internal journey lends the film a rewardingly rich sense of literary closure that few films have been able to quite match in recent memory (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree is the only other that comes to mind). Though its culturally isolated narrative may prevent the film from ever attaining the continuously frightening political relevance of Children of Men, Roma represents Alfonso Cuarón operating at the conclusive peak of his craft as a filmmaker, and is undoubtedly among the finest works released in 2018.