About halfway through Roma, a field of aspiring elite soldiers are training on an expansive and stunning monochrome landscape. Standing before them, a local strongman named Professor Zovek prepares the men for a spectacular sight.
In a finely crafted and oddly dramatic sequence, he puts a blindfold on, lifts one leg up and manages not to fall over. In response to the disappointment of his audience he asks, “What, did you expect me to levitate?”
That scene is Roma in a nutshell. The excitement from the film festival circuit and early critical acclaim has certainly promised us something spectacular, but at its heart is a rather unremarkable story of a family in Mexico. For some, the subtlety and visual splendour with which that story is told will entirely deliver on its promises, but many may be left a little underwhelmed by a film they half-expected to levitate.
Roma’s high expectations are largely thanks to the highly impressive CV of director, writer and cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón. He helmed Gravity, Children Of Men and Y Tu Mamá También. There’s no doubt that of everything he’s made, Roma is closest to his heart, and a pretty sure bet for his second Oscar as Best Director.
The story is largely autobiographical, with most of the scenes drawing on memories of Cuarón’s childhood. The drama mainly takes place in a family home (filled with furniture from Cuarón’s own childhood home) and centres on the live-in family maid Cleo – played fantastically by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.
From the outset, we follow Cleo’s busy day-to-day life of servitude, and study her relationship to a seemingly perfect upper-middle class family that has some growing cracks in the facade. In the background, literally and figuratively, is Mexico in the 1970s, and its own troubling cracks.
It terms of the internal drama, it becomes evident quite early on that Cuarón is telling a tale about strong women in a troubled world of selfish men. Alongside Cleo, the family mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is the character we get closest to, and her relationship with her husband Antonio is best embodied by her treatment of his precious car, which she rams between a pair of trucks.
As for Cleo, early scenes show her budding romance with a local aspiring martial arts champion Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and we’re treated to an odd scene where he performs an elaborate martial arts routine in a very naked state. It seems to set the stage for a story about penises, and their tendency to wreck everything.
Cleo tells Fermín she’s fallen pregnant, and an initially merry reception in a movie theatre is quickly followed by Fermín popping to the bathroom and never returning; our only other glimpses of him involve him threatening to beat or kill Cleo. Cleo’s not the only woman to get a tough time, although other relationships are handled with greater subtlety and fewer threats of physical violence.
Lacing these themes together is the striking black-and-white visual poetry of the film. Cuarón’s work in Roma, as both director and cinematographer, undoubtedly deserves comparisons to the historic masters of arthouse cinema – Cuarón composes shots like Andrei Tarkovsky, and conjures interpersonal drama like Yasujirō Ozu (if you’ve never seen Tokyo Story, you really should).
Several scenes will leave a deep impression. A forest fire, spotted by Cleo amid a glitzy New Year’s Eve party, mixes the violence of a raging fire with the innocence of nearby playing children as the lavish and drunken party guests try to douse the fire, while the foreground is taken up by a party guest singing a passionate and soulful melody.
Similarly, Cuarón constructs some incredibly ambitious large-scale shots. Professor Zovek’s non-levitation is certainly one, but more striking is the restaging of the Corpus Christi massacre, in which a military group attacks a student protest, with a heavily pregnant Cleo fearfully onlooking – a prelude to Roma’s most hair-raising sequence.
There’s a fluidity through so many of these scenes that brings to mind Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba – a member of the arthouse royalty. But like much arthouse cinema, Roma has a tendency to be a little slow, and a little indulgent.
One of the early sequences of the domestic shuffles of the house shows Cleo dashing into a door at the end of the garage, and there’s a long static shot of the door and a nearby canary. It’s one of those arthouse moments where you may find yourself pulled into the energy of the scene, and filled with excitement about the framing of the shot and imagery of the caged canary. You may, however, just be thinking, “What’s with this door?”
An introductory sequence of waves of water over the garage tiles is similarly lengthy and challenging. It brings to mind Tarkovsky’s seemingly never-ending shots of flooding water in Stalker, a visual homage that Cuarón almost certainly intended. It is a little ponderous, though, and were it not for the reputation of the film and director would have many would-be Netflix viewers quickly tapping the ‘Back to Browse’ arrow.
Of course, arthouse cinema has a tendency to test the patience of its viewers. At best, that’s a reaction to instant gratification cinema and entertainment; at worst, it’s a certain sort of snobbery. On the big screen, Roma easily pulls off that indulgence and earns our attention throughout long and static scenes. That may be harder on the small screen.
Which brings us to the central debate that has roared behind the scenes of Roma, that Netflix has offered only a very limited cinematic release and instead favoured its own streaming service. That’s an argument for another day, though.
So, what is missing from Roma? While it offers us four or five moments of cinematic wonder, the majority of the action relies heavily on an appreciation of the deeply personal lives of the characters. Where Cuarón manages to draw us deeply into the world of his characters in films like Gravity, where we felt like we were sat alongside Sandra Bullock in an escape pod, many will watch Roma feeling like outside observers on the troubled family.
The children that occupy so much of the narrative never really develop their own characters, and largely just serve to portray Cleo as a deeply compassionate and loving character. Nor do we really get a sense of the inner turmoil of their mother Sofia.
Then there’s Cleo herself. We sympathise with her, pity her, and deeply respect her. Yet as a viewer it’s tough to really fall in love with her, as Aparicio’s meek and mild style fits the role perfectly, but is a little unrelatable.
Some have said it needs to be watched twice, and maybe it does. Yet that always seem like short shrift to someone who doesn’t buy into the 135-minute offering first time.
Roma is uniquely special in terms of its visuals, and Cuarón manages to tug at our heartstrings more than once. But while Roma will generate some great conversations between arthouse enthusiasts, it may leave the average viewer feeling a little short-changed by the acclaim and hype it’s received.
Roma is out in selected cinemas from today and will be streaming on Netflix from 14 December