The best word that can be used to describe Roma is that it is transcendent. It is a transcendent piece of cinematic art that captures your heart and is also a theatrical experience that manages to rupture the senses.
After director Alfonso Cuaron made Gravity, the cinematic event of 2013 and one of the most monumental cinematic experiences of the decade, some of us probably wondered how he would follow that up. Well, he has made a film with a story that is smaller in scale yet is still quite simplistic. It seems like a straightforward story involving the life of a maid (Yalitza Aparicio) and the family she takes care of but it turns out to be more than that.
Cuaron is able to make an ordinary story feel grand and extraordinary by structuring the film as if it is a moving painting with each long take that he shoots telling a significant story. For example, when Cleo, our main protagonist, is roaming through her neighborhood and the camera continuously focuses on her, you can immediately tell the difference between her social background and the background of the more affluent family she works for. Then there’s a sequence where the family matriarch, Sofia (Marina De Tavira), is explaining to her children that she and her father are separating. As she’s discussing it with them, a couple getting married is shown in the background as a way to demonstrate life’s cyclical nature.
Roma also captures how life can be quite seismic. One reason is because a seismic earthquake takes place at one point. However, occurrences like that earthquake end up being a manifestation of Cleo's stormy journey which ends up becoming a testament to her strength as a character. Even though she doesn’t have much of a family and the father of her unborn child wants nothing to do with it, Cleo still manages to “brave the storm” and keep going. Thankfully, she gets help along the way from the stern yet loving Sofia.
Sofia may be a supporting character but she proves to be as central to the story as Cleo and part of that is due to the impact of the performance by Marina De Tavira, who manages to do more acting with facial and body language than what most actors can do with pages of dialogue. In fact, her most heartbreaking scene is when her husband leaves her and she’s clinging to him as if she’s holding on for her dear life, begging him not to leave. As the film progresses, Da Tavira presents Sofia with a warmful grace used to shield her children from the pain that their father’s absence will inevitably cause them.
As for newcomer Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, she is a quiet force of nature. Initially, she plays Cleo as someone with a very earthly, youthful spirit before Cleo morphs into a figure of both dignity and sensibility. Aparicio captures her transformation with such precise subtlety and whether she’s closer to or further away from the camera, she always captures your attention. Alfonso Cuaron may be the engine driving this film forward because he also wrote, shot, edited, and produced it. However, credit should also go to Yalitza Aparicio for carrying the picture with ease. She knocks the role, in what is her first feature film, out of the park and deserves to have more starring vehicles thrown her way.
Aparicio’s performance manages to be in sync with the "in the moment" tenacity that the rest of the film has. Aside from the long takes, the bombastic sound effects help make it seem like you are in the moment with our main characters. Sounds like planes flying and water flowing maintain the sense of grand realism that Roma possesses.
In conclusion, Roma is a transcendent, “slice of life” epic that captures how ambitious and magical filmmaking can be. It is a poignant, well-acted story about class, family, redemption, and rebirth that has the awe-inspiring spectacle of a studio blockbuster with its eye-catching cinematography and impressive sound work. Simply put, it is a masterpiece and one has to wonder how Alfonso Cuaron will be able to top what is his magnum opus.