If it wasn't clear before, then Roma is a gorgeous guarantee that achieving technical perfection is Alfonso Cuarón's one true goal. Cinematic wizardry allowed his 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men to leave an indelible mark on action movies, influencing countless filmmakers with its engaging long-take set pieces, and then he took over half a decade to make his space-set blockbuster Gravity, which required the director to push digital effects technology to its limits.
Now, he's turned his eye to a more intimate topic, focusing on the trials and tribulations of domestic life in a 1970s upscale Mexican household, but the change of genre and the lack of overt thrills has only enhanced his desire to reach technical godliness. It's an intriguing approach, the mundanity of everyday life treated with the crisp and complex precision of an ambitious action flick.
The aim is to craft as absorbing a domestic drama as any that's ever been attempted, but the result has a superficial effect that undercuts the intention's potential. There's so much world-building and attention to detail going on that the onscreen world feels less lived in and more populated by Cuarón's puppets.
Roma offers absolute artifice, but what beautiful artifice this is! The level of cinematic craft here borders on being overwhelming and Cuarón never lets up for a single second or even a mere frame. There are plenty of opportunities to bask in astonishment and stare in awe at the lengths to which Cuarón will go to translate daily housework for the silver screen.
Photographed in pristine black and white, Roma follows live-in maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a portrait of warmth) as she tends to her work, struggles with her personal life, and observes a melancholic transformation of the family she cares for. Light on plot, the story revolves entirely around Cleo's experience, which begins as strict routine and then becomes increasingly tinged with tragedy, until a glimmer of hope finally emerges.
Cuarón has long claimed that the movie is somewhat autobiographical and his love for the character of Cleo is apparent at all times. She's a saintly woman, quiet and reserved and wholly handed several raw deals by a world that has positioned her near the bottom. Still, she never complains, continuing to soldier on no matter what problem life throws her way. She's like a second mother to the four children she looks after and yet she never forgets her place in the family. It's as adoring a character study as you'll likely ever find.
Aparicio is wonderful in the role, too, which is key to taking Cleo beyond the point of fawning tribute that Cuarón is content to settle at. The whole cast is great, including the children, so the shimmering surface of sublimity isn't in danger of being shattered on any of these fronts. But Cuarón plays so strictly and slickly with his cast of marionettes that he somewhat suffocates the drama. He treats exquisiteness as a digital effect, which adds an overly mechanical element to a story that is more sensory than genuinely moving.
In terms of story specifics, Cuarón flirts so determinedly with miserablism that it seems at times he's been infected by Iñárritu-itis. Cuarón has always been far more optimistic than his filmmaker friend who's responsible for grim dramas like Amores Perros, Biutiful, and The Revenant, but just as Cuarón inspired Iñárritu to tackle technical challenges, it seems Iñárritu has now inspired Cuarón to explore the darkness of compounding tragedies.
The blatant juxtaposition between horrible events and sumptuous imagery is, at worst, unintentionally comical and, at best, a bit of a hit to the attempted authenticity. Cuarón's smooth camera movements are ever noticeable and the sheer showiness of the display often clashes with the sad tale onscreen.
But if one approaches Roma as the technical exercise it is, then it becomes tough to fault Cuarón’s expert effort. It’s additionally difficult to not simply marvel at the complexities of the compositions or allow your ears to be gently tickled by the myriad sounds that explode from every edge of every scene. There’s always so much going on both visually and aurally that our senses are given quite a workout.
Despite this, Roma is often at its best when needling in on a single sliver of character-developing absurdity. Some of the movie’s finest moments are also its funniest, such as a scene in which the patriarch of the family returns home from work one evening and takes forever to patiently park his large car in the narrow space provided. Another highlight involves Cleo’s love interest showing off his beloved martial arts skills while completely naked and brandishing a shower curtain rod.
Moments like these puncture the taut tension in strange and unexpected ways, but most importantly they populate the narrative with rich character beats that bring the movie as close as it ever gets to the oddities of everyday reality. They’re as meticulously staged and executed as any shot in the picture, but there’s a particular freshness to their presence.
Those random asides are just a small part of the experience, of course, since there’s a lot of tragic and loudly dramatic ground to cover here. Cuarón lets the mood swing smoothly back and forth between light and dark, finally settling somewhere in the middle. The emotional content feels somewhat manufactured, weakening the overall impact, but this is a byproduct of Cuarón’s current style and his heightened level of control. He loves and lives to explore the medium’s possibilities, to make the argument that cinema is an immeasurably immersive playground. Technically, he’s not wrong.